Around the world, children have arguably never experienced greater strains on their mental wellness than within the last decade. With the steady amplification of influences such as social media, online content, and “virtuality” as more and more programming, education, and social outlets move online, today’s children are navigating a fundamentally different world than that of any generation that has gone before them.
A wide range of mood or behavioral disorders can lead to serious mental health issues if left unattended. Thus, it’s hugely important for today’s parents, teachers, siblings, peers, caretakers, and more to understand today’s mental health needs and the influences that can impact the mental health of children.
What Affects Children’s Mental Health?
Strong mental health requires a number of different components. Thus, a wide range of influencers can conversely weaken mental wellness and increase the risk of mental illnesses or disorders. These factors can include experiences of trauma, prolonged disruptions to routines, neglected physical or physiological needs, social isolation, and many more. One such influence is social pressure or messaging that promotes certain body types or aesthetic looks over others.
How Body Image Can Affect Mental Wellbeing
A large number of studies have revealed correlations between body dissatisfaction and mental health risks or mental illnesses. Feelings of pressure to be thin, look a certain way, or meet body appearance expectations are linked to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and low self-esteem in children and adolescents. Correlations have been shown between Body Mass Index (BMI) and anxiety, depression, and more. Children and adolescents with higher BMI readings (signifying a higher likelihood of appearing overweight) are more likely to experience negative symptoms of mental illness than those with lower BMIs.
These effects and stresses can be pervasive and difficult to tackle. The effects of negative body image or dissatisfaction can remain for long periods of time or even someone’s entire life if they aren’t addressed and changed. This can often take concerted effort in reshaping a child’s expectations of themselves, helping them understand the narratives that have contributed to their own negative body image, and helping them replace unrealistic or harmful expectations with more body-positive and realistic relationships to their bodies and physical appearance.
Body image struggles can be found both in children who are classified as overweight as well as children who would fit into normal weight brackets or are even underweight for their height and development stage. This makes the problem of negative body image much more elusive and nuanced since it appears in children with a range of body types and BMI’s. Understanding how to shape or guide interventions with children who have a negative body image or perception despite a healthy BMI or weight can be very difficult. It takes care and in-depth understanding to provide effective interventions for every child that struggles with negative body image.
Proactive Engagement with Physical Health
One way of combating negative body image perceptions in children and adolescents is by proactively enabling and encouraging strong physical health. Increasing a child’s physical health will not only reduce the likelihood that they will struggle with an unhealthy BMI (which can lead to negative mental health effects), but will help them engage in activities that are proven to increase and protect one’s mental health and wellbeing. This can be done through encouraging simple healthy behaviors and lifestyle choices.
Encouraging regular play and exercise, healthy eating habits, strong sleeping routines, and more will all help a child regulate his or her physical as well as mental health and lessen his or her chances of experiencing high BMIs or obesity in childhood or adolescent stages. These habits can contribute to lifelong living choices and help children grow into healthy adults.
Public Health Measures and Resources for Mental Wellness
However, as mentioned not all negative body image experiences result from obesity or being classed as overweight. Due to the extreme pressure some children and adolescents feel to achieve and maintain certain body looks and standards, even those that might be completely unrealistic, even children in healthy weight classes for their stature and development stage could experience negative body image concerns that adversely affect their mental health. Because of this, it is important to be aware of mental health and wellbeing resources that are available to children that can support this type of mental health strain.
One central source of mental health support and resources can often be found in schools. Though offerings range widely across geographical areas and school districts, most have some kind of mental health screening or variety of service offerings of which your child can take advantage. This can be a vital source of help and support for your child if they experience negative body image that could threaten their mental health.
Outside of schools, mental health resources are a topic of concerted public health and policy reform in many places. Many areas have some kind of mental health support system in place that can be utilized in the process of helping children who suffer from negative body image in a way that might be threatening their mental wellbeing. If your child shows signs of mental health decline or struggles with their body image, mental health resources offered through your local doctor, community center or health clinic, or similar can provide a beneficial and sometimes life-changing first step to tackling body image struggles for your child.