Children as young as three are becoming anxious about their bodies

Children as young as three are becoming anxious about their bodies

Research carried out by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) has revealed that children as young as three are already starting to show signs of being body conscious.

Amongst the childcare professionals who were surveyed for the research, 71% said they believe children are becoming more anxious about their bodies and at a younger age than ever before.

Nearly a quarter of respondents said they have seen signs that children aged between three and five are unhappy with their appearance and this figure almost doubled amongst those aged between six and ten.

Almost a third of nursery school staff said they have heard a child label themselves as ‘fat’ and 10% have heard a child say they feel ugly. More than half said they noticed that girls are more conscious about their looks than boys are.

The research suggests that concerns surrounding image and weight are now starting before children have even begun school and that as the years go on, children are being affected at younger ages.

Although more research is required, it has been speculated that there are a number of contributing factors. However, the evidence suggests television and images in story books and animations are likely to be the biggest culprits.

Dr Jacqueline Harding, an advisor at PACEY commented:

“By the age of three or four, some children have already pretty much started to make up their minds and even hold strong views about how bodies should look. There is also research evidence to suggest that some four-year-olds are aware of strategies as to how to lose weight.”

She continued:

“We know for sure that early experiences matter the most and we need to be very careful about how (even inadvertently) we signal to children that they should think negatively about their bodies and how they look.”

PACEY has also warned parents that even if their children are very young, they should still be aware that they can be influenced by the way they talk about their own bodies and appearance. Because these thoughts are developing before children are reaching school age, it’s likely that parents and peers are the biggest influences of all.

Nick Harrop, campaigns manager at the children’s mental health and wellbeing charity YoungMinds, confirmed this idea:

“Childhood is when our mental health is developed and patterns are set for the future – so it’s crucial that parents reassure their children about how they look, set a positive example and help to build their self-esteem.”

Statistics about children and body image

  • 34% of adolescent boys and 49% of girls have been on a diet
  • 42% of girls and young women feel that the most negative part about being female is the pressure to look attractive
  • Over half of girls and a quarter of boys think their peers have body image problems
  • Between one third and half of young girls fear becoming fat and engage in dieting or binge eating in order to prevent this
  • One in four seven-year-old girls have tried to lose weight at least once
  • One third of young boys aged between eight and twelve are dieting to lose weight

Signs that children have body image issues

There are a number of signs that may suggest your child has confidence issues relating to their body or looks. Whilst it’s possible that your child may just be having an off day or week, if any of these behaviours become a regular or ongoing thing, it may be appropriate to speak to them about how they’re feeling.

  • They obsessively scrutinise the way they look in the mirror
  • They always make negative comments about the way they look
  • They compare their shape and the way they look to other people
  • The regularly seem to envy a friend or a celebrity’s body
  • They weigh themselves often
  • They obsess about a body part that doesn’t look the way they want it to
  • They use negative terms to describe the way they look
  • They can’t enjoy themselves at events or in social situations because they feel too conscious about the way they look

Risk factors

There are risk factors which can make some children more likely to experience body image issues than others. Although most things that happen in a young person’s life won’t lead to mental health problems, certain traumatic events can trigger problems for children who are already vulnerable.

Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Having a long-term physical illness
  • Having a parent who has problems with alcohol or drugs or who has mental health problems
  • Experiencing the death of a loved one
  • Having parents who are separated
  • Being severely bullied or abused
  • Living in poverty
  • Experiencing discrimination
  • Living in care
  • Taking on adult responsibilities at a young age

If you’re concerned that your child may be anxious about the way they look, please feel free to contact Life Works in the strictest of confidence and we will be more than happy to help. If you think that this has already led to something more serious, you can read more about the signs and symptoms of depression or have a look at our eating disorder treatment page.

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