6 Ways to Help Young Children Avoid Body Image Issues

Mother comforting daughter

Dann Tardif / Getty Images

Negative words about a person's own body are upsetting to hear from anyone, but it can be really heartbreaking when they’re spoken by kids as young as preschool or kindergarten age. However, research has shown that some children may begin to worry about body weight and physical appearance as early as age 3 to 5. Additionally, many young children openly express unhappiness about their bodies.

Research on Childhood Body Image

Research released in August 2016 by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), a charitable organization that provides support to those working in childcare, found that as many as 24% of child care professionals have reported seeing kids as young as 3 to 5 years old express unhappiness about their own appearance or own bodies.

A startling 47% of childcare professionals have seen anxiety about body image in kids ages 6 to 10—nearly double the number of body-image anxious kids among those just a few years younger. As many as 71% of child care workers believe children are becoming concerned about their bodies at a younger age. Nearly one in five childcare professionals say they’ve seen kids refuse food because of fear that it will make them fat.

Troublingly, phrases such as “He’s fat” or “She’s fat” are common among children. As many as 37% of childcare workers have heard kids say things like this and as many as 31% have heard a child call themself fat. Childcare workers also report having heard a child say they feel ugly and that they wished they were as pretty or good-looking as someone else.

A 2015 report by Common Sense Media (a nonprofit organization that works to educate and empower parents, teachers, and policymakers about the use of media and technology) found that adverse body image starts to develop at a very young age and that images centered around how someone looks are often very stereotypical, unrealistic, and gender-biased.

The report examined existing studies on how kids and teenagers feel about their bodies and found that issues around body image begin long before puberty. Children as young as age 5 begin expressing dislike for their bodies online and say they want to be thinner.

Surprising findings from the Common Sense Media report include that more than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as ages 6 to 8 say their ideal weight is to be thinner than they are. By age 7, one in four kids has attempted some sort of dieting behavior. A whopping 87% of female characters on TV that are between the ages of 10 and 17 are below average weight.

Tips for Parents

Kids learn about body image—and develop anxieties about their appearance—from a variety of sources, including culture, parents, friends and peers, and the media. Parents can play a crucial role in encouraging a sense of good body image in kids. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Watch Your Words

Avoid saying things like, “I look so fat in this,” or “I can’t eat this because it’ll make me fat.” Your child is listening and learning from you. The Common Sense Media study found that kids ages 5 to 8 who think their moms are unhappy with their bodies are more likely to be dissatisfied with their own bodies. Aim to show confidence in your body as well as about yourself.

Don't Focus on Looks

Avoid talking about other people’s appearance and their bodies. Instead, focus on more important things about a person, such as how kind, talented, or charitable they are or whether they have good manners or work hard.

Focus on Healthy Habits

Emphasize exercise and healthy eating over their weight. Spend family time doing active things like playing outside, riding bikes, and going to the park. When you go grocery shopping, let kids help you choose healthy fruits and vegetables and read nutrition labels together to teach kids about healthy eating habits.

Scan Their Toys

Take a look at the action figures or dolls in your child's toy chest. Do they have unrealistic bulging muscles, enormous eyes, or proportions that are not humanly possible? Try to edit these toys out or at least balance them out with more realistic representations of the human body. Better yet, stock up on brain-building board games, puzzles, and great books for kids.

Promote Body Positivity

Talk about gender and body stereotypes in ads and media. View content with your child and notice when you see commercials, TV shows, or movies that feature people in overly sexualized or gender-biased ways or promote unhealthy food choices. Talk about what’s wrong or missing with these images.

Limit Screen Time

Studies have shown that cutting back screen time can reduce kids’ risk of obesity and even improve grades. Teach kids to view junk food ads, which are now even following kids online, with an understanding of what they are trying to sell. Talk about the importance of a balanced diet that prioritizes nutrient-dense foods.

A Word From Verywell

Helping your child develop a positive body image can be challenging but is an important part of raising a child. With proactive efforts, you can head off the often negative messages kids often get from the outside world about "ideal" bodies. Watching what you say about your own body (and theirs) is also a crucial part of helping your child cultivate positive body image.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years. Children as young as 3 unhappy with their bodies.

  2. Common Sense Media. Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Is your teen at risk for developing an eating disorder.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.