Your daughter refuses to leave the house unless her bangs are curled. Your son spends all his birthday money on one pair of sneakers. As a parent, it's discouraging to watch a child place so much emphasis on what he looks like. And even though we were once this age, we still forget how connected physical appearance is to self-esteem. We start to wonder if all that time in front of the mirror can possibly be normal.
Psychologist Dr. Les Parrott, author of Helping Your Struggling Teenager (Zondervan), says that it's healthy for pre-adolescents to be concerned about their appearance?it's part of their physical and emotional development. Parrott explains that most pre-adolescents make it their full-time job to carve out a sense of identity, and at their developmental stage, physical appearance is one defining mark.
When it comes to appearance issues, we need to help our kids maintain a healthy attitude about what they look like and how their appearance relates to their other character qualities. Find opportunities to commend your child on his relational abilities such as honesty, integrity, compassion, kindness, and joy. Tell your child how much you admire his relationship with his friends and the way he treats them. Or tell your child that you respect her ability to tell the truth, even when it's hard. Remember, a child's self-image can be closely identified with your image of her, so be sure to focus in on the good stuff and affirm who your child is, not what she looks like. Whatever you point out, be sincere and specific in your praise.
In his book The Parent Survival Guide (Zondervan), Dr. Todd Cartmell suggests that parents take the time to ask their child what it's like to be a preteen in today's society. Get to know what your child thinks about the importance of appearance. Are kids at school accepted or rejected based on their appearance? In what way does your child feel affected by her appearance? These questions not only help you understand why this issue is so important to your child, they also show her that you take her concerns about her appearance seriously.
When your child has "a bad self-esteem day," sympathize with her. Explain that her feelings are normal and that they won't last forever. Parrott encourages parents to be careful when offering advice to a child about her personal appearance. "Let your conversations be full of grace, seasoned with only a little advice, so that you build a healthy relationship with your children" (paraphrased from Colossians 4:6).
"I Don't Care"
Some kids just don't care how they look and parents worry that they aren't concerned enough about their appearance. "Give it time," says Parrott. "A child might be slightly delayed. It's important for parents to realize that 'taking care of yourself' may not mean the same to an adult as it does to a preteen. They may take great care to look as though they don't take great care, but they may be going for a particular style." If the need arises, set "good hygiene" rules for your child that cannot be negotiated, and prescribe consequences if your child does not follow through.
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