Dear David Coleman: My 12-year-old daughter says she hates how she looks

Up to 77pc of teen and pre-teen girls experience body image dissatisfaction

David Coleman

My 12-year-old daughter is a bright child but lacks confidence in herself and in her appearance. She thinks she is ugly.

She hates her freckles. She hates the fact she has thin arms and thin legs. She hates the fact that she has hairy arms. The list is never-ending and every day there is a new 'hate'.

I am constantly having to say to her that she is beautiful and that her body will change as she gets older and these issues will resolve themselves. How can I build up her confidence in herself firstly and then confidence in her appearance?

David replies: Body image dissatisfaction among teen and pre-teen girls is significant, with studies estimating rates anywhere between 20pc and 77pc of girls experiencing it. Your daughter, then is not unusual in feeling "hate" of various aspects of how she feels she looks.

I think that she may not even be able to hear the positive things you say to her, because she is potentially caught up in all the negative feelings of disgust, sadness, maybe even shame. These, or any negative feelings she has about her body, are likely to be very powerful and may overwhelm her rational, common-sense, self.

So, when you talk to her, rationally, about how she looks, she just may not have the processing space to be able to consider it.

If that is the case, it is more useful to focus instead on empathising with her perspective about her body, so that you connect with her emotional self. While you may not agree with her judgements about how she looks, you do need to be able to show her that you can understand that this is how she might feel.

When she sees that you 'get it' more, she might become more open to your gentle challenges of her perspective and may actually be able to allow some of your positive perspectives on how she looks to filter in.

In general, too, you can focus on building her self-esteem more than focusing on her self-confidence. She does need to realise that she is lovable, and capable, since these are two key elements of self-esteem. Lovability is the area that she seems to struggle most with, since she seems to think that she is unacceptable and unlikeable in how she looks. You might be able to counter this by empathy, as I've suggested above.

Her sense of capability can be bolstered by giving her a sense of her usefulness, her strengths, her ability to face and solve problems and by encouraging her to take on greater responsibility.

I think you are correct to recognise that if she feels better about her self-worth and her value, she might also be able to take a more positive view of how she looks.

Puberty might also be a challenging time for her, as the body changes that you anticipate will be positive might also be hard for her to accept.

Your daughter might need continued understanding from you and others, showing your acceptance of her and encouraging her to accept herself.