Just before Arlene English’s daughter, Jaylene, started high school she got her first real acne breakout. “Jaylene became obsessed with skincare products and make-up. She was so concerned with how ugly she looked that she didn’t want to go to school,” says English, who lives in Vancouver.
Feeling insecure and sensitive about physical appearance is common in the preteen years for both boys and girls, says Calgary child psychologist Cassandra White. “Lots of kids have some kind of insecurity, from acne to their height (or lack thereof) to being too heavy or too skinny.” It’s a rite of passage, she says. “These years are a time when kids are figuring out who they are, what’s important and what their place in the world is. Insecurity about their appearance can be a part of that discovery process.”
Some parents offer blanket-statementÂ complimentsÂ that don’t resonate (such as “you’re so pretty”), or dismiss their child’s concerns about their appearance, which doesn’t help the situation either. Elise Proulx, a guidance counsellor at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Pickering, Ont., says that however insignificant the concern may seem to the parent, it’s important for the child to know that she is supported.
English spent a lot of time reassuring her daughter that her skin wasn’t that bad, even going so far as showing her photographs of her own very similar skin at that age. “She appreciated it but it didn’t work,” says English. “She said, “You’re just saying that because you’re my mom,’ and told me not to patronize her.”
Listening properly to what your preteen is saying is the only way you’ll understand where he’s coming from. White says that a comment like “I’m so ugly” could be communicating either a passing frustration (such as he feels ugly because he has pimples on his nose) or an ongoing and recurring belief that he’ll always feel ugly and that he doesn’t measure up to his peers.
“If it’s just a passing comment, it might be appropriate to acknowledge your teen’s feelings, discuss it, and not make a big deal out of it.Â If it’s ongoing, multiple conversations and a plan of action may be needed to address the child’s concerns.”
The first thing parents should do is ask their child what they can do to help, but you don’t have to have all the answers, says White. “It’s important for preteens to learn to problem-solve, discuss and evaluate possibilities and learn that they can make decisions to change and impact their lives.”
You may well find that all your preteen wants is to be heard. But, if he does want help, following through with the solutions you discuss (such as a trip to the dermatologist or to a pediatrician to discuss weight concerns) is important. Once English took her daughter to the doctor, Jaylene realized that her mom was indeed taking her concerns seriously.
When your child doesn’t want to go to school because of how she feels about her appearance, it can be heartbreaking and very frustrating to deal with alone. “School staff can help in these situations,” says Proulx. “If they are made aware that the child is struggling, many will make an extra effort to help that child to build up her self-esteem.”
Getting your child involved in activities she is interested in can also help her realize that the way she looks is just one part of who she is and that a seemingly perfect body or face is not a prerequisite. And don’t underestimate the power of volunteering, says Proulx. “Participating in volunteer activities is a good way for a child to feel valued and help her realize that all people have strengths and weaknesses.”
Writer and mom Lola Augustine Brown was self-conscious about her gappy teeth as a preteen, especially as every time she posed for a photograph her mom reminded her to close her mouth when she smiled.