Young children can be especially observant about appearances, but Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says there are a few ways we can downplay looks as important and help kids focus on what's inside instead.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
March 05, 2020
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Illustration by Yeji Kim

Dear Inside Out,

Around age 2, children become aware of physical differences, including body sizes and noticing when people look different than what they expect. My father loves to tell the story of when I was around 3 and loudly asked why a man was wearing a ponytail if he wasn't a girl; the man happened to be a tough-looking biker so my dad whisked me far out of earshot! All this to say it is developmentally very normal for young children to make observations (and cringe-worthy comments) about appearance.

I understand your concern, though, that at age 6 your daughter is making negative comments about her own appearance. You are on the right path with the intention to take steps to help her develop a positive self-image. You can consider a few factors as you work on this with your daughter.

Prioritize Social Modeling

We cannot underestimate the huge impact of what children see adults do and say. Research has shown that daughters of mothers who frequently make negative comments about their bodies are more likely to develop their own problems with body image. Pay attention to what you and other primary caregivers may be modeling; even a habit of looking in the mirror at yourself and looking unhappy may be sending a message. Making comments like "I shouldn't eat that" or "I just need to lose a few pounds" convey your own dissatisfaction with appearance.

Look beyond yourself to other adults with influence. Does your daughter have grandparents who make critical comments? Or a childcare provider? If you pay close attention to what she is hearing from prominent adults in her life, you may realize she has learned that appearance is important despite all your best intentions. You may need to have a conversation with the other caregivers about your observations and request they be more conscientious in front of your daughter.

At age 6, another consideration is what her peers are saying and doing. This age of starting elementary school exposes children to much older children, who may be making negative comments about bodies or teasing each other about looks. If you ask your daughter what she hears other children saying about appearances, you can more explicitly counteract these messages.

Consider Media Exposure

Our family largely survives on streaming services for our curated and controlled televised entertainment. So, when we watch live events like the Super Bowl, I feel like a grandma clutching her pearls when commercials parade a more superficial version of beauty than I want my children to see, as my daughters' wide eyes take it in. These days, media exposure extends so far beyond our living room that we have even less control than parents before us.

Think about the range of media your daughter currently uses, and think through what subtle messaging about appearance may be part of it. When my daughters started acting like spoiled teenagers, I realized they were watching a new show with that type of character. Although we would not expect messages about appearance to be targeting your daughter's age group, you may be surprised if you sit with her or even ask her questions about favorite characters and what she likes about them. This investigation may help you tweak viewing choices, or at least more specifically deliver your counter-messaging about character traits as more valuable than appearance.

Shift Your Attention

Another possibility is your daughter is doing what children do best: getting attention. Sometimes when we have a laser focus on an issue we worry about, this high level of attention ends up reinforcing the very behaviors worrying us. Then our kids become more likely to keep up with the habit.

You could experiment with redirecting the topic or plain ignoring her comments for a couple of weeks and see if the frequency changes. Notice opportunities to give her attention that have nothing to do with the topic of appearances. One warning: It is typical for any behavior you are trying to eliminate to actually worsen briefly in an attempt to regain the attention for it before it starts to decrease. If the focus on appearance has become a learned way to get attention rather than part of a negative self-image, your daughter will likely move on.

When to Seek Help

I remember the first day my 3-year-old daughter came home talking about Snow White when we had made a concerted effort to avoid princess culture, because of the very concerns you are raising. But her friend from daycare had blown our cover, and now she knew Disney princesses existed. Fast forward seven years and this same girl has soundly rejected princess culture, after at least a couple years of princess obsession. I share this story to say that there's a chance this behavior may be just a phase. It's possible that your efforts will help her ultimately move on from her focus.

If your daughter's negative comments about her appearance are occurring in combination with other signs of low self-esteem and sad mood, you may want to have a mental health professional do an evaluation to see if there are larger concerns. Although it is less common for young children to experience depression, it is possible and needs more professional support.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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