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This article was contributed by Dove Self-Esteem Project

The Dove Self-Esteem Project provides teachers, family workers and parents with free resources to help raise young people's body confidence and self-esteem. Teachers and professionals can download free resources to deliver self-esteem workshops to young people.

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Healthy friendships - how to encourage your child away from toxic body shaming

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Friendships are the next most important thing to children after home and family - and quite a lot of the time, it feels like they’re the most important thing. Friends introduce children to new ideas and exciting opportunities - whether that’s something minor like a different way of dressing or a whole new way of thinking about the world. But friends can be a source of anxiety for parents, not least when it comes to influencing how your child feels about their looks. 

You want your child to be in a group that makes them feel good about themselves rather than pressured into fitting in. Dove Self-Esteem Project’s ‘Uniquely Me’ Parent Guide has lots of practical ideas for how you can help your child make friendships that support them.

Friendly pressure

Even well-meaning friends can reinforce young people’s feelings of unease about their bodies. If a friend tells you that you look great then adds, ‘have you lost weight?’ it’s not unreasonable to think a) that you must have looked too fat before, and b) that everyone is constantly looking at you and measuring whether you’re up to scratch.

Today’s children face incessant commentary on other people’s bodies and looks, not least from social media and influencer culture. One way of cementing friendships can be to put yourself down for failing to meet the ideals - ‘I look fat in these jeans, I’ve got so many spots!’ Yet as little as three minutes of body talk can lead to feeling worse about yourself and your body, according to a study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

‘Constantly talking about our bodies can reinforce the idea that there is only one type of body shape that is beautiful,’ says body image expert Jess Weiner. Friendships based on poring over pictures of ‘ideal’ bodies on social media, and on a selfie culture of ‘likes’ (of which there can never really be enough) can end up making everyone feel bad.

Banter is part of friendship, of course - but the line between banter and bullying is a fine one, and banter can sometimes be a cover for denigrating someone. A child who is being picked on by their friends can feel utterly devastated. You can find out more about how to help your child distinguish between friendly banter and bullying in the Dove Self-Esteem Project’s ‘Uniquely Me’ Parent Guide.

So how can you help your child’s friendships stay positive?

  • If there’s a lot of body talk among your child’s friends, encourage your child to say they’re bored of it. Tell them it’s OK to tackle the issue head-on, to tell a friend, ‘you shouldn’t talk about yourself in that way: you’re great.’ Help them to see that it’s not cool or helpful to put yourself down. (If you do it, others might too).
  • Pay your child regular compliments. Make sure they know you definitely don’t think they’re unattractive. Quite the opposite.
  • It’s become fashionable to say you feel fat and ugly: sometimes this has become a shorthand way of expressing feelings of depression or sadness. If your child says this kind of thing, suggest that focusing on their looks is unhelpful in coping with the difficult feelings we all have.
  • Suggest to your child that they and their friends try to go one full week without negative body talk.
  • If your child feels feel pressured into behaving or looking a certain way by their friends, suggest they might need other friends, who accept them for the fantastic person they actually are. Or, failing that, tell them that the brave and right thing is to admit to their friends that this kind of talk is making them sad, and ask them to stop.
  • Encourage your child to do the ‘Real Me’ activity with her friends to highlight the ways in which they are unique. It’s on page 19 of the Dove Self-Esteem Project ‘Uniquely Me’ Parent Guide.

(For teachers and professionals, the Dove Self-Esteem Project also offers a series of workshops and resources with practical activities to help boost children’s self-esteem. Download them for free here.)

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‘Uniquely Me’ is packed with advice and practical activities for parents to help nurture their children's body confidence and self-esteem. It contains expert advice from Dove Self-Esteem Project global experts from the fields of psychology, body image, self-esteem, eating disorders and media representation to create a resource for parents that is focused on advice and action.

Download your free ‘Uniquely Me’ Parent Guide

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