Helping Children with Their Body Image Struggles

Lily’s Story

Lily stands in front of the mirror and squints as she looks herself over. She checks her outfit disdainfully and pulls her shirt down to cover her tummy. It’s too tight . . . again. It fit just a couple of weeks ago. Sigh. Her pants are too tight again too. She scowls at her stomach; it looks like it is sticking out. She feels like a hippo. Why does she feel so chunky and awkward, like she doesn’t fit right in her own skin? She turns and walks away from her mirror with a sigh. It’s not like it matters what her clothes look like anyway. It won’t make her day at school any better.

She doesn’t like much about school, but she especially dreads lunchtime. Yesterday someone laughed at how much space her bottom took up on the lunch table seat and then pointed and whispered about the pudding cup on her tray. The other day, she overheard a couple girls talking about how her thighs jiggled when she was walking past. Her classmates don’t even call her Lily anymore. They just call her “Lunchtime.” It makes her feel like such a freak. In moments like this, she just wishes she could be invisible.

Connor’s Story

Connor put on his shoes for school and winced. He’s so tired of looking at these same, ugly sneakers. He hasn’t gotten a new pair in such a long time. He understood when mom said there wasn’t a need to get new sneakers when his old ones still fit him. But that was the problem. Why did all of his little kid clothes still fit him? Would he ever grow?

He wiggled his skinny arms. They jiggled like jelly. He was so embarrassed in gym class last week when he couldn’t finish the rope climb. He couldn’t help it—his muscles were just so sore they were burning. He couldn’t make it more than halfway up the rope. He couldn’t ring the bell like all the other boys. He just slid down until he fell onto the floor. Then his hands burned as bad as his arms. It wouldn’t have been quite as bad if all the boys hadn’t cracked up and started making fun of him for being a wimpy baby. It was humiliating.

Our Children Need Our Help

How can we help children like Connor and Lily? Are their body image struggles just something they have to grow out of? Connor, Lily, and many hurting children like them can be encouraged and pointed toward God and his ever-present help. While their peers and our culture try to make them fit an idealized version of beauty or development, the Lord has a different word for them. His word is that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), and that Jesus loves them and will be their source of comfort and help in difficulty.

Sharing these truths with them in a way that they can understand and apply starts with us understanding the developmental issues young children face, and then helping them to see what God in his Word says to encourage and help them.

Carefully Listening to Concerns

As your child shares his or her body image struggles with you, be willing to listen carefully to his or her concerns, working through each one. Body image questions are common, and while they are challenging, there will be answers from God’s Word (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Asking good questions will help uncover their view of God and their understanding of their purpose as God’s beloved child here on earth.

It is tempting to simply bolster your child’s self-confidence so they feel better about themselves, without taking the time and effort to work through difficult issues. Though your goal may be to show devotion to your child, brushing aside pain without helping to answer honest questions won’t help your child in the long run. Often those issues will resurface later in life but with far more life-altering consequences. If you need help addressing issues, seek pastoral counsel or advice from a trusted mentor couple in your church.

Parents need to give lots of feedback and positive reinforcement to help their kids rightly view themselves and others, particularly when they are going through awkward developmental stages. Many parents feel uncomfortable talking to their children about their bodies. However, understanding God’s authorship of both their outer and inner person will help set the stage for a deeper understanding of God’s overarching care over all the details of their lives and help them be motivated to shift their focus from themselves to others.

Practical Steps to Seeing Ourselves as God Sees Us

Help your children know the normal stages of growth and development. Prepare them for any changes that lie ahead so they are not shocked or blindsided. Talk about your own struggles with body image and how God has helped you. In a time when nothing about them feels normal, help them to understand that they are not alone in their struggles and that many experience the same battles. Let them know they can come to you (and ultimately to the Lord) to work through any hurt or confusion they may be feeling.

Monitor who is allowed to speak into your child’s life. If God’s Word is not the predominant, most consistent voice, conflicting messages will exacerbate confusion. Encourage their relationships with friends, family members, and mentors who will champion God’s definition of what is good and worthy. As you help them evaluate the influences in their lives, teach them biblical truths about friendship, how to serve and not criticize, and to stand for truth with kindness.

It’s easy to think that, in a stage where fitting in is so important and nearly everyone struggles with feelings of worthlessness, other children would be especially gracious and kind to one another, but that is not the average childhood or adolescent experience. Differences that mature adults might be able to celebrate and appreciate are often mocked, vilified, or disparaged in childhood. Teach your children that this is one of the biggest ways that they should be different and stand out—by using their words to build others up and not tear anyone down. Although not all children will be the subject of outright bullying, 100 percent of children will need to know how to biblically respond to unkind, rude, and mean comments from others in general and about their bodies in particular.

An important factor to note is that access to personal electronic devices and the pervasive presence of social media leaves children especially vulnerable. Most kids have no idea that social media posts are highly curated presentations of the most perfect version of others. Most users of social media present their most perfectly curated photos and videos—and most of these are not even real pictures, due to the magical editing of filters. They’re posting their “10” every time, and there is tremendous personal pressure to live up to that image. Additionally, online comments are often crueler and more cutting than face-to-face interactions. Online social commenting in gaming and app platforms allow users to gang up on others and barrage victims with cruel, unfounded messages that children won’t know how to filter or process.

Finally, help children view their bodies as a stewardship from God. Learning how to take good care of your body is as much a part of growing up as learning how to dress, write, and speak. Sometimes body image challenges exist because parents have not been involved in overseeing healthy eating and lifestyle habits; thus, their children have developed unhealthy, obese bodies which cause embarrassment. Parents are the most influential voices when it comes to healthy eating and lifestyle habits, and we must not dismiss unwise habits about food and lifestyle choices or habits of gluttony. You will need to be involved in helping your child learn how to choose food that is nutritious, get enough sleep, have a wise schedule, and exercise their bodies so that they stay strong and healthy.

Lasting Comfort

While messages urging kids to compare themselves to others surround us in this culture, God’s devotion and loving kindness to his children is freely available to all without distinction. Children who are hurting will find lasting comfort in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. While the struggle to live within a world that places such heavy emphasis on outward beauty and strength will not disappear, its damaging messages can be better discerned and combatted in the context of a relationship with God that is genuine and never faltering in its care. Competing messages from the world about self-worth can be processed through God’s incomparable love, devoted care, and dedicated affection.

Excerpt adapted from Helping Children with Body Image: Teaching Them to See What God Sees by Jocelyn Wallace. Used by permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.

Helping Children with Body Image Frontcover

Helping children With Body Image

Children struggling with shame or discomfort about their bodies feel tremendous pain. They don’t feel normal or accepted, and their world is often cruel and judgmental. Counselor Jocelyn Wallace helps parents and caregivers give comfort to children who are hurting and confused about the false messages they have believed about their bodies. 

About the author

Jocelyn Wallace

Jocelyn Wallace is a certified biblical counselor, teacher, and conference speaker and has served as the director of both a women's transitional home and a faith-based residential treatment center for girls. She is the author of the minibooks Anxiety and Panic Attacks: Trusting God When You Are Afraid and Helping Children with Body Image: Teaching them to See What God Sees. Jocelyn and her husband, Brian, have two daughters.

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