How to Help Your Preteen Accept Her Changing Looks

Try these tips for keeping your child's attitude positive through acne, braces, and growth spurts

Illustration by Yasmeen Ismail

Mustapha, 14, has been wearing glasses since he was nine, but recently he’s let his mom know he wants a pair of Ray-Bans instead of rimless specs so he can look hipper in his YouTube videos. His younger sister, Summeiya, 12, doesn’t like her glasses and would like to ditch them altogether for contacts. She also wants to wear more makeup like her friends, is eager to dye her brown hair red, and wishes she were taller, much taller, than her current height of five-foot-one—especially since her brother went through a growth spurt and sprouted up nine inches in the past 18 months (but of course, he now feels all gangly).

Parents of preteens may start to notice their kids are spending more time in front of the bathroom mirror critiquing their rapidly changing bodies, or hating their glasses, new braces or a first zit that’s appeared out of nowhere during this stage. Changes during puberty can make a child self-conscious and sensitive, but parents can help make these transition years easier.

Getting Ready for a Close-Up
Developmentally, children this age begin to tune into how they think others think about them, says Lara Wease, a Burnaby, B.C.-based registered clinical counsellor specializing in child and family therapy. “They become acutely aware of how they might appear to others, making them much more self conscious.” Part of this identity formation is developing ideas about the kind of person they would like to become, often through media exposure. “While the media can be a source of helpful information, magazines, music videos, film and television can also bombard this age group with representations of what it means to be cool. It’s often about how you look and what you have,” says Wease. For that reason, children need to develop an internal sense of self-worth, she says. “Express your appreciation for their unique qualities, the activities they’re involved in, and what they have power over, because you can’t always control how you look.”

Appearance and Self-Esteem
If your preteen is developing a long-standing preoccupation with a certain physical characteristic, this may be a red flag. Has it caused your teen to stop participating in an activity she once enjoyed, or to make negative self-comments? Not going out with friends, slipping grades, trouble concentrating, irritability or difficulty sleeping could point toward depression.

“Depression is more than just being moody. Parents will think it’s hormonal, but if a low mood that centres on their looks persists, don’t hesitate to seek counselling. There are many resources to support parents,” Wease observes.

Acne or braces are temporary, and feeling self-conscious about them needn’t rattle a child’s self-esteem. Encourage your preteen to visualize the end results, such as, how nice her smile will look when the braces do come off. Ask her how many kids in her class have braces, or let her know that 80 percent of teens will experience acne or explain the role genetics plays in development to help normalize her experience. Both teenshealth.org and media-awareness.ca are good sites to learn more about issues facing preteens and teens.

More Than Looks
Parents can help a child build self-esteem by highlighting the activities their child enjoys and recognizing what they are good at. Physical activity and participation in sports has been shown to improve body image and increase self-esteem, especially in girls. Listening to what she has to say is a powerful tool. Parents often avoid discussing a topic if they feel they can’t fix the problem; they don’t want to engage in a battle because the decision to wear glasses or braces is not optional, says Wease. Communicating with empathy—figuring out and acknowleding how they feel—can also be helpful. “If your child is feeling frustrated, tell her, ‘I know you’re frustrated and I can’t take that away, but tell me about it.’ Sometimes kids will say that is enough, that they just need validation,” says Wease.

If financially possible, go ahead and pick out a new pair of glasses with your teen and make it a positive, fun experience. Look into acne treatment options and let her personalize her new braces with coloured brackets and elastics. By acknowledging the physical changes your preteen is experiencing, it can help her embrace the unique individual she already is (and the one she is becoming).

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