It’s normal for teenagers to express concerns about their bodies. “We live in a culture that cares a whole lot about appearance. It very rarely puts anybody who is less than almost perfect in front of them in the media,” explains Dr. Lisa Damour, director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.
In this series of four videos, Dr. Damour shares ways parents can address their teenagers’ concerns about teen body image, including how to handle teasing, bullying and body image.
Video #1: My teen doesn’t like their (fill in the blank)
Transcript: It sometimes happens that teens come to their parents with concerns about their body and how they look. And those concerns can be really specific. They may say “I hate my nose. I can’t stand my ears. My lips are too thin.” Parents can then be confronted with demands from the teenagers to do something about it. It can be hard as a parent to know how to respond to the teen’s concerns and the demands.
The first thing you want to do is remember your teen is not coming to this anxiety in a vacuum. They are coming to this anxiety in the context of a culture that cares a whole lot about appearance. It very rarely puts anybody who is less than almost perfectly attractive in front of them on television or in the media. And, on top of that, it sends the message that the body is infinitely mutable. It can and should be changed for the better.
The first thing you want to do when responding to your teen is not critique them for having this anxiety. They come by it honestly. And if you respond to them saying, “Why are you so superficial?” or “What are you talking about? There is nothing wrong with you,” you are not going to get the conversation off on the right foot.
What you might do instead is validate their concern.
Say, “Look, I understand you don’t love the shape of your lips. We all have parts of our body that are not exactly the way we wish they were.”
And then you can say, “You know, I think you are going to find a way to live with this. People who love you may actually find that to be one of the neatest, most defining characteristics you have. That often in mature attraction we really relish the things that make the people around us special and unique and different.”
Your teenager is not going to love this response. They are not going to feel like you’ve given them exactly what they came for. But you want to be very careful to not get caught up in the same thing that’s upsetting them. They are feeling like having thin lips is the end of the world. If their parent responds as if having thin lips is a crisis, then the situation is actually made worse. So long as we’re not talking about a substantial deformity that is interfering with your child’s quality of life, your job as a parent is to help them keep perspective. And it is very hard for teenagers to maintain perspective on things relating to appearance and attraction.
Video #2: Responses to hurtful teasing
Transcript: Sometimes kids tease other kids about parts of their bodies. Often, the teasing seems completely ungrounded in reality. What the peers pick up on as a source of giving somebody a hard time, adults may not even notice. Or it would be completely below our radar. But if your child is on the receiving end of teasing you need to hear about it at home. And when you hear about it at home, it’s usually because your child is upset. And if your child is upset, you are you going to feel upset. Then you will be confronted with what to do with those upset feelings.
So, imagine you’ve got a daughter and her name is Jane. And she is being teased about the shape of her ears. She may want to talk with you about the shape of her ears and what her friends are saying.
You’ve got several options for how to respond.
One might be to say, “Look, if the kids who are teasing you about the shape of your ears are kids you want nothing to do with, now you know just to avoid them. If the kids who are teasing you about the shape of your ears are kids who you sometimes like or often get along with, and they are teasing you in a way that feels gentle or funny or part of the back and forth, which also happens, then you may want to tuck it in your pocket. Know that this is a way in which these friends can be less than kind. But it may not be worth throwing the whole relationship out over some teasing. Especially if it’s mild teasing and especially if it’s back and forth.
That gets to a third issue. Often kids will tell us what is being done to them. But they don’t always tell us about what they are dishing out. So, if your child comes home and says, “Oh, I’m being teased about my ears,” it might also be worth saying, “Is this something you guys do? Is this something you participate in?” Drill down a little more.
Because it’s not uncommon for children to want sympathy and relief for what they are on the receiving end of, without fessing up to what they are on the giving end of.
Another fantastic solution that you can have in your pocket that addresses any number of complaints that kids will come home with is sometimes to say, “Do you want my help with this or do you just want to vent?” That often will get things off on the right course. Because if your child just needs a place to vent, you can just sit back and let them vent and know you are doing your job. If they say, “Actually, I do want help with this,” they’re much more likely to take the help you offer. But if you start offering help and feel like everything you are offering is thrown away as just another useless suggestion and another version of you not getting it, what’s probably going on is they just wanted to vent. And you’ve jumped in with advice they never wanted.
Video #3: Teasing that inches toward bullying
Transcript: There are times when teasing crosses the line and does turn into what we would call bullying. Whenever we talk about bullying, we need to be careful to define the term. Bullying is when one child is being systematically targeted by another child or a group of children and is unable to defend themselves. It does happen that there are children who are brutally teased about their eye color or their hair color or their size or their shape. They are unable to defend themselves and they have no one on their side.
If that is happening with your child, you want to take the situation very seriously.
The first thing I would recommend you do is touch base with the adults who are around or could be around when this teasing is happening, whether it’s at school, at camp, or an after-school setting. Alert them that you are under the impression or think this might be happening. You want to approach this neutrally. You don’t want to go in accusing. Because again, even children who really seem to be at the receiving end only, sometimes when more stories come out, we find out they have had very much of a hand in bringing about the teasing they are suffering from.
When you approach adults in other environments about how your child is being treated, your best bet is to always go in as an ally and a colleague. “I am getting reports from my son that he is being brutally teased about his height. Could you keep your ears open. Could you keep your eyes open and let me know if you are seeing the same thing.” From there, you can begin to have a conversation about what is actually happening. Then take a thoughtful approach about what you can do to protect your son.
In terms of a thoughtful approach and assuming that the person at the school, say, has seen the same thing that your son is reporting at home, you then want to partner with your school in protecting your son without doing anything that would increase the level of retaliation.
School confrontation around bullying is a very, very delicate process.
And you will want to make sure your school is skilled and adept at confronting bullying before you involve your child in any intervention designed to reduce bullying at school.
Video #4: Defusing teasing
Transcript: When it comes to things like teasing, you probably want to have as many tools in your pocket as you possibly can. Another option, depending on your child, and depending on the context, might be to say to them, “Well, your ears are a little funny shaped.” And to do it in a way that is warm, and loving, and make it clear that we can make fun of ourselves. And we can sometimes let other people make fun of us.
In doing so you could communicate that sometimes teasing can be fun, or funny, or light.
And that sometimes we can make fun of ourselves as part of that process. And that sometimes it can be a way of expressing being part of a group, or being close and connected to somebody.
Of course, your child is the only one who’s going to know the context in which the original teasing occurred. And beyond that, how the original teasing landed for them. So, you’ll want to use this very, very judiciously. But, it’s always good to know that sometimes the best defense against being teased is to go ahead and make fun of ourselves first.