Kids look forward to summer all year, but the days spent at the pool or the beach may cause stress for some of them. For children and adolescents who have low body-esteem or are self-conscious about their appearance, time spent at the pool or beach in a bathing suit can cause significant anxiety. This anxiety can result in avoiding social events or fun with friends and family in order for kids to avoid feeling bad about their appearance, or being teased.

If your child or adolescent seems reluctant to head to the water or put on a bathing suit, there are some important things you can do to help.

  1. The first thing to do is to gently and non-judgmentally ask your child what is going on and listen, rather than give advice. Your child may very well not be forthcoming about the true reasons behind their reluctance, but listen for hidden messages that might help you understand what is going on. Normalize and validate his/her concerns by talking about how lots of people may feel that way, especially teenagers who often feel that the whole world is watching and judging them.
  2. Be a good role model! If your child hears you complaining about appearance, bathing suits, etc., he/she is more likely to feel concerned about his/her own appearance.
  3. Do not allow teasing from any member of the family. Too often, kids tell me that their own family members tease them about weight or appearance, even when the family member thinks it is “all in good fun.” This teasing can be very painful and have a big impact on a child’s self-worth.
  4. Remember, don’t focus on your child’s weight, body shape, or appearance when praising your child or encouraging them to change, even if you are coming from a place of concern. Focus on health, health behaviors and qualities about your child that are more important, such as sense of humor, friendship or intelligence.
  5. Help minimize the potential discomfort around shopping for a bathing suit by doing some research ahead of time. Find stores that you are certain carry suits in your child’s size, go in “off” hours where the store is not likely to be crowded to minimize discomfort trying on suits with many other people around, or consider ordering suits online to try on at home and then returning suits that do not work.
  6. If your child might legitimately receive negative feedback from others based on their body in a bathing suit, problem-solve with them about ways they might feel more comfortable (such as wearing athletic shorts or a t-shirt over the bathing suit). You can also help your child practice responses to negative comments.
  7. If these steps do not help with your child’s anxiety about their appearance, consider seeking help from a professional to help your child find ways to bolster their self-esteem, as this can have a big impact on their quality of life.

Above all, summer can be a fun time to let loose, have fun with friends and spend time by the water. It is important to help kids manage their concerns about themselves that may get in the way of their fun.

A good resource for parents of kids and adolescents who struggle with their self-image is the book “I’m, Like, So Fat!” by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer.

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Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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