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Parenting: teens

How to help a teenage daughter going through body image issues

Between hormonal changes and society’s unrealistic portrayals of what women should look like, teenage girls in Hong Kong and elsewhere face immense pressure, often to the point of developing self-esteem issues

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 7:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 7:01am

My daughter used to love sports at her Hong Kong primary school but she tries to avoid it now that she’s in Year Seven. She won’t join extracurricular sports clubs and tries to get out of school if she has PE. She’s become embarrassed about her body and says she doesn’t want to change with others because she feels she’s not as pretty or slim as some other girls. How can I help her to regain her confidence and love of sports?

Moving to secondary school is a big change for students. Add to that the flow of hormones and mood swings as pupils grapple to develop their own identity, and you can have an incendiary mix. Your daughter may simply need time to adjust.

There are also other possible reasons for your daughter’s change in attitude towards sports. Sometimes when children mature they develop different interests. As parents, we often organise our child’s time at primary school with activities we feel they should be doing. However, our children become less pliable or biddable as they get older, as they become more independent and realise they have a choice.

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At this tricky age girls tend to become very self aware and even hypersensitive because their bodies are developing. Sometimes this means they put on weight, and this can further exacerbate their worries. This is perfectly normal. Some will do anything to get out of doing PE.

To help avoid embarrassment, make sure your daughter’s PE kit is on the loose side so she doesn’t feel exposed. Also, try to ascertain whether she has been teased for any reason by her peers, because this may be undermining her confidence and affecting the way she feels about the lessons. Bullying is extremely damaging and most schools now operate a zero-tolerance policy.

Girls can be incredibly spiteful and are experts at hiding bullying, making it harder to detect. A few whispered comments about a girl’s body shape or an unkind look can make the difference between a happy schoolday and an excruciating one.

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Unfortunately, for girls particularly, body image and “looks”, rather than talent and personality, have become the focus in modern society, strongly influenced by the media and celebrity culture and fashion. The obsessive nature of social media and digital images is a huge concern for all parents.

We know as adults that children should be focused on enjoying learning, time with friends and following their own interests, valued for who they are not what they look like. However, the sad fact is that according to a recent survey in Britain, girls as young as seven feel under pressure to look perfect, with many believing their looks are the most important thing their lives.

The Girls’ Attitudes Survey reported that many young women and girls are unhappy or even ashamed about the way they look, with about a third feeling they are not pretty enough. Many girls said their lives would be better if they were not judged by their looks and body shape, and this is leading to low self-esteem, eating disorders, mental health problems and depression. It can be heartbreaking for parents to watch helplessly as their daughters lose their confidence or joie de vivre.

Schools are becoming much more aware of the need to tackle this issue. Also, as parents and teachers, we need to think carefully about the way we praise girls, focusing on their efforts and achievements rather than their looks.

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Hopefully your daughter will regain her love of sports as she feels more settled in secondary school. Friendships often develop around taking part in sports and can be crucial in the formation of social groups. Competing against others can be a strong bonding experience, and it would be a shame for her to miss out, especially if she has developed the skills to do well. However, be careful about pushing her into doing extracurricular sports at this sensitive time. Try to do active things together as a family, eating healthily and sensibly but avoiding any sort of dieting.

These days, secondary schools often have more facilities for a wide range of physical activities for children to enjoy, in addition to traditional sports. These can include less mainstream sports including table tennis, badmintonor rock climbing. Research shows that active children are likely to experience better physical and mental health, and often have improved self-confidence and a positive attitude to life.

As your daughter changes from a girl into a young woman, give her time to make the transition and continue to be supportive and encouraging. If you continue to worry about her decline in confidence, have a quiet word with her form tutor or pastoral care teacher, so she can be given a little extra support at school.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher