Monday 23 October 2017

Dear David: My nine-year-old son is being teased about being fat and I worry about him

Advice from psychologist and parenting expert David Coleman
Advice from psychologist and parenting expert David Coleman

Advice from psychologist and parenting expert David Coleman on how to support a nine-year-old child who is being teased about being fat.

Q. I'm looking for some advice on how to deal with body image in kids. His friends are telling my nine-year-old boy that he's fat. He's not fat, but I hear a lot of talk about "six-packs" from these same children. I am amazed at the stuff they are focused on. It seems mad that they can't just be children anymore but have to be so body-conscious. How do I teach my son to be self-confident and not develop a body image issue? I understand how being healthy is important, but I also understand that this unrealistic expectation can be so damaging.

David replies: Body image is such a fraught issue for children. Most typically we associate body image worries with girls in the preteen and early teen years.

However, the issue that your son has, demonstrates clearly how the development of body image concerns can be universal and could be the result of criticisms, real or perceived, from others about body shape.

As you say, it is such a shame that at age nine, his friends' focus is on body shape, not sports or other pastimes. There is no denying the almost casual (but possibly unintentional) cruelty that children can wreak upon each other.

Calling your friend "fat" has the potential to be very hurtful, and as we see in many youngsters, potentially dangerous too.

Thankfully, from what you describe in your query, your son doesn't seem to be showing any negative impact of the name calling. He doesn't seem to have been too bothered by being called "fat" and seems to be reassured by you that his body shape is normal and good.

There are a couple of things that you might want to do with your son to help him continue to be resilient in the face of others' teasing about his body. The first is to bolster his self-esteem. When you talk about wanting him to feel self-confident, your best starting place is to help him have high self-esteem.

Children with high levels of self-esteem (feeling good about themselves) tend to be very confident and are, usually, not afraid to express themselves, since they rely more on their own judgements, rather than the judgements of others.

Building self-esteem needs to address two factors; our sense of being lovable and our sense of being capable. Lovability involves feeling accepted, feeling welcomed and feeling liked by others. Capability involves focusing on all our strengths, the things we do well and what other people value about what we do.

Your son's sense of lovability is what may have taken the biggest knock if he is being teased or taunted. It seems like you still give him a strong enough sense of his acceptability and you seem to acknowledge how he might feel about the teasing. These two things may be enough to keep his feeling of "lovability" high.

Your son probably has lots of other strengths that he can feel good about. Reminding him of how useful and valuable he is for what he can do and what he has achieved will support his sense of capability.

The other thing you can do is to address the teasing by helping your son with some coping skills to be able to respond. Give your son some assertive phrases like, "you may call me fat, but I like the way I look", or "call me fat if you like, I'm not bothered because I like myself". Acknowledging the teasing, but showing you don't care, is the most effective way to make it stop.

At the same time, it may be worth talking to the parents of the other children to tell them what is happening and to see if they can have a word with their sons.

At an even more broad level, it is worth having conversations at home about body shape, what is normal, what is exaggeratedly thin, what is Photoshopped (and consequently not normal), such that your son comes to understand how the media-portrayed images of people also do not reflect reality.

The more any of us can withstand the onslaught of unrealistic "ideal body shapes", put forward on social media and traditional media, the easier it becomes to be happy with our own bodies.

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