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Towards a healthy self-image

self.jpg (17933 bytes)Nobody knows for sure why some children show early signs of puberty; but when it happens, they become more self-conscious and feel uncomfortable. What should parents do to help their children build a positive body-image?

Early puberty can be embarrassing for parents and children. A mother from Kandy wrote, "My ten-year-old daughter, Safia, has started her periods. Many of my friends look at her curiously and ask about her age, she is so big already. Her father and I are both tall, so this is to be expected, but how can I prepare her for the teasing and comments that I know will start soon in her school?"

Children like Safia are not alone these days. In a landmark 1997 study, American expert Dr. Marcia Herman Giddens found that nearly 15 per cent of Caucasian girls and 50 per cent of African-American girls showed signs of puberty as early as age 8. Puberty before age 8 is considered early for girls, and before 9 premature for boys. The causes of early puberty are still not definitive. Theories range from environmental toxins, to additives in food, to excessive exposure to provocative images in the media.

In addition, some link appears between obesity and early puberty: heavier girls (and some boys) mature earlier than thin girls. There also seems to be a genetic link - the children of early bloomers tend to be early developers, too.

However, whether your child is an early developer or is on the verge of starting puberty, it is your responsibility to make sure she feels confident and has a healthy self-image. Here are some ways to encourage your son or daughter to build a positive body-image before he or she hits the turbulent teenage years.

EXPLAIN WHAT IS HAPPENING

Stay calm and be a guide to steer your child through what is going to be a difficult time. Explain that puberty is normal and that there is no one single time table for this change to occur. Discuss that there are a range of factors that determine physical shape and size. Some of these depend on heredity and cannot be changed, while others - good nutrition and exercise - can improve health. Explain that it is normal for girls to put on 20 per cent of their body weight in fat during puberty.

Watch for any signs that your child is trying to ‘diet’ - there is so much stress in our culture on body image and ‘looking thin’ that this may cause young children to be overly obsessed with having a perfect body. Encourage youngsters to focus instead on their school work, friends and activities. Point out to your children that the images they see on television do not reflect the truth - that the human body is designed to differ from person to person. Get them to think critically what they see in the media.

BOYS NEED HELP TOO

Early maturity can make boys feel uncomfortable too, especially amongst their peers. Yes, it is true that the change girls experience present more difficulties than what boys go through but parents should not assume "boys will be boys".

Concerns about not looking "manly enough" rank high on the list of many fifth and sixth graders. As they grow taller, broader, stronger, and develop a deeper voice, they too may obsess about wanting the perfect body. Young boys worry about having scrawny chests and not enough muscles. Youngsters as young as 12 and 13 have joined gyms to do weight training, even though doctors advise against weight lifting for kids this age because their bones and muscles are still forming. Boys get many messages from the world of sports that physical strength is the ultimate goal. Parents must point out that intelligence, compassion and emotional well-being are a part of the whole personality, too.

COPING WITH ATTENTION

What can be most frightening for fast developing girls (and boys) is unwanted attention from the opposite sex. Eleven-year-old Carly (name changed) told her school counsellor how running across the basketball court made her feel self-conscious because the boys had started looking at her. The attention makes her uncomfortable and a part of her childhood seems to have ended abruptly.

The ongoing issue will be trying to balance how Carly sees herself and how others see her. How much to discuss also depends on your child’s maturity level. Carly’s mother did not skip the details. Carly’s mother also met the school teachers to ensure her daughter would not be teased.
– Priyanthi


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