Beating the blues: girls, negative body image issues and depression

  • Age: 9-11 yrs
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Beating the blues: girls, negative body image issues and depression

“I’m fat.” “I’m too short.” “I’m not pretty enough.” Ever heard these phrases spoken by your daughter? It wouldn’t be surprising. Girls today can struggle with how they feel about their bodies and this struggle may influence how they feel about themselves, often in negative ways.

What is body image?

Body image is how someone feels about their physical appearance. Body image develops over one’s lifetime and can be easily influenced by the way others view us, especially when we are young. Children as young as five are aware that others judge them and current research has found that children as young as seven are expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies, complaining that they are fat or need to go on a diet. One study from the National Institute on Media and the Family showed that at age 13, 53% of American girls are “unhappy with their bodies”. By the time they reach 17, the number grows to a startling 78%. For many girls, body image is directly linked to self-esteem.

What is self-esteem? Why is it important?

Self-esteem is all about self-worth. It also relates to how you feel others value you. Self-esteem is incredibly important for your daughter because feeling positive about herself will promote mental well-being and behavior in healthy ways. Unfortunately, self-esteem is fragile. There are many things that can influence a girl’s view of herself: puberty and development, friends and family, and the media. Often, one or more of these may give a girl misinformation that she is ‘not good enough’ or ‘inadequate’ in some way. Girls and young women with positive self-esteem generally feel in control of their lives, are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and are able to surround themselves with positive people. Girls who feel good about themselves tend to be more confident in school, in work environments and in life.

Body image, self-esteem and depression: the impact

What happens when a girl does not feel good about herself? What happens when the messages she receives create a negative body image or sense of self? We know that when there are positive feelings, there are likely to be positive outcomes. We can assume, then, that the opposite should be true. Girls who do not feel comfortable in their own skin can be at greater risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety. As they don’t feel good about themselves, girls who struggle with self-esteem and negative body image issues often experience more sadness and dissatisfaction in their lives. Girls who have symptoms of depression can have greater difficulty engaging with the world in a meaningful way. They may have a harder time making and maintaining healthy relationships and tend to turn inward rather than reaching out for help. Often, depressive symptoms can lead to a decline in academic performance. Additionally, some girls may experience suicidal thinking and self-harming behaviors.

It’s critical that girls have opportunities to create positive experiences and have role models that can help them embrace their positivity. If they can do this, they may decrease the likelihood of ongoing depressive symptoms in their lives.

Author Dr. Jennifer Hartstein,clinical psychologist specializing in issues related to children, teens and their families and author of Princess Recovery: A How-to Guide to Raising Strong, Empowered Girls who Can Create Their Own Happily Ever Afters.

Action checklist:
Don’t let your daughter’s self-esteem or body image be dented by negative messages.

Teach Radical Acceptance: We are all imperfect. Teach your daughter how to embrace her imperfections and radically accept that they exist. Radical acceptance involves accepting the things we cannot change, while working to change the things we can. It is often hard to know the difference, and as we learn them, we let go of suffering and misery and embrace our positives. The flaw is in the perfection. Her differences make her unique and interesting. Play those up in ways that make her feel good about herself.

Focus on the positive : It’s easy to get wrapped up in the negatives. Focus on the positive things that your daughter is doing. Avoid addressing the elements that can be improved upon, rather encourage the things that are going well. You won’t be able to avoid correcting her, but she is likely to internalize the positive, validating things you say much more than she will the negatives.

Love what YOU see in the mirror:  As her parent, you may have the most influence over your daughter and her body image (even more than the average 10 hours and 45 minutes of media she consumes every day). If you try to love what you see in the mirror, she may learn more about self-acceptance, and avoid teenage body image issues. Model for her how she should start to view herself. If she sees you doing it, she is likely to embrace it more herself.

Don’t get caught in the appearance trap:  So often, our first inclination with girls is to focus on their appearance. This is something that happens at all ages. Our initial reaction to a friend is, “You look terrific!” Girls are likely to internalize this as one of the most important elements of themselves and, when they can’t be ‘perfect’, they may feel bad, which can increase the risk of depression. Focus on her accomplishments, her abilities and her efforts. Although it is natural for appearance to be important to her, show her that these others things also hold much importance. It can build her self-esteem and promote a positive emotional well-being.

What next:spotting the signs and symptoms of depression

The following signs may be indicators that your daughter is suffering from depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association and US healthcare provider, the Mayo Clinic:

  • Sadness, hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness
  • Tearfulness or frequent crying
  • Observable behavioral change, such as loss of interest in activities, withdrawal from some (but not all) people, decreased academic success
  • Engagement in risky behaviors such as substance abuse, impulsive or reckless behaviors, violence or self-harm
  • Suicidal thinking or behaviors

How to help your daughter with feelings of depression and negative body image

  • Talk with your daughter. In as non-judgemental a way as possible, share your concerns about your teen’s behavior and highlight the specifics that you observe and why they are worrisome.
  • Be persistent. Your daughter may minimize her symptoms or blow you off. Be respectful of her need for some space and don’t give up on talking about your concerns.
  • Validate, validate, validate. Often, teens feel that they will be judged for feeling as they feel. They fear that they will be talked out of their feelings or convinced that they are overreacting. Your daughter’s feelings are valid, even if you don’t understand them. If you validate her, meeting her where she is, you will keep the conversation going.
  • Ask for help. If you feel that the depressive symptoms are taking over your daughter’s life, or feel that she needs more support, reach out for professional help. A therapist could help to get to the root of the problem and will provide your daughter, and you, with tools for better managing her moods.
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