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Friday, March 18, 2011

Parents Sit In to Learn about Kids and Body Image

Parents Sit In to Learn about Kids 
and Body Image:
Family therapist Dr. Richard Briggs 
gives library talk
(Posted to 3/18)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Cultural ideals and modern advertising can have a profound influence on children and their body image. How to temper that and help young people develop healthy attitudes is what many area parents wanted to know.

Family therapist Dr. Richard Briggs, PhD, aimed to provide answers and guidance through his talk “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall… Kids and Body Image”, a free program hosted Thursday evening by Fairfield Library’s main branch at 1080 Old Post Road. Part of the library’s ongoing Parenting Series, the session attracted a roomful of local adults.

Briggs, who specializes in the study of learning disorders and provides educational workshops for parents, began his talk with a question to the audience.

“How many people feel comfortable with their body image?” he queried. “I ask this as it’s always best to start with thinking about yourself. It’s especially helpful to think back to when you were a child and your own sense of self-image as a frame of reference.”

Briggs defined body image as “an internal schema of one’s body based on one’s activity in the world and contact with others.” In the case of children, these images become more refined and differentiated as they grow and incorporate subjective ingredients. Different qualities of characteristics often predominate at different times, he explained.

“Children also form images of others and ideals, the most desirable or attractive body,” said Briggs. “These ideals are shaped by the particular cultural values the child experiences as he grows. Ultimately, the child forms an internal basis for comparison and grounds for feeling satisfied or dissatisfied with his own image.”

Having a positive body image gives a child a sense of continuity, self-esteem, sense of competence and self-confidence, explained Briggs. “It can be a source of protection against other assaults and injuries in life.”

Briggs said that psychologists often ask children to draw pictures of themselves as a way to evaluate a child’s internal self image and identify concerns and conflicts. He shared a few examples with the audience and explained how, for example, a child with anxiety about certain parts of their body may reveal that anxiety in the way the figure is drawn in those areas.

Children develop body concerns at a surprisingly young age, said Briggs. “Girls as young as four or five express dissatisfaction with their bodies and some girls as young as six will talk about dieting and even throwing up as a method of weight control,” he said. “In general, boys are more private about such concerns and generally focus on worries about strength and muscularity. By the time boys are seniors in high school, approximately 6% are using steroids in an effort to look more muscular.”

Briggs advised parents to maintain open and respectful dialogue with their children, free of anxiety, instruction and judgment. “It is important to attend to your child’s concerns and be active in their efforts to foster both a healthy approach to taking care of one’s body and acceptance of the particular body or shape one has.”

In particular, Briggs suggested parents emphasize healthy living and exercise and doing things with kids that are active and energetic. “Such family activities could include skiing, swimming, cycling, tennis, etc. In addition to encouraging a healthy, self-confident relationship to one’s body, these activities promote parent/child bonding,” he said.

Parents should also be sure to compliment their children on other qualities than appearance, such as curiosity, creativity, thoughtfulness and hard work, said Briggs. “Often, a child’s anxieties about body image will be a way of communicating concerns about other issues.”

A Trumbull mom attending the session, who preferred to remain anonymous, hoped Briggs’ information would help her deal with the changes her daughter and son were going through. “Everything’s changing with both of them, especially my daughter,” she said.

Fairfield mom Wendy Muschett was hoping to be proactive should body image issues arise. “My children are young now, but this may be relevant as they get older. Kids feel a lot of pressure. If there’s anything I can do to help them, I’m open to hearing from the experts.”

Mom Kathi Kane of Fairfield said the talk was relevant to her raising her two girls. “I’m very sensitive to making sure the proper messages are getting through to them,” she said.

Fairfielder Wendi Lien was particularly hopeful of getting some guidance. “My daughter’s seven going on 17,” she said. “I’m hoping I can steer her in the right direction. I don’t want to say too much. She might kill me if she read this.”

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