The Link between Bullying Prevention and Healthy Body Image in Children

A guest post by Keir McDonald MBE

The U.K. Government recently released the results of a nationwide survey to better understand public perceptions of body image. It found that 87% of girls aged 11- 21 think that women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability.

This statistic is worrying because research has shown that in addition to affecting how people feel about their looks, poor body confidence can have a devastating effect on many aspects of their lives. According to the research, this is especially pronounced in adolescent children.
From achieving at school to effectively dealing with bullying, healthy body image is important for children to develop. As educators, we all have a responsibility to do everything we can to share positive messages about our bodies and help children develop healthy ideas around body image to further the fight against bullying.

Here are 3 ways educators and parents can encourage healthy body image in children.

#1. Engage in a healthy conversation with students and children.

First and foremost, it is important for parents and teachers to talk to kids about body image. Asking kids for their opinions about how bodies are depicted in the media is one good way to start the conversation.

Consider asking questions like “Does that look real?” “Do a lot of people really look like that?” and “What do you think might have been done to that picture to make it look that way?”

Teaching children to view media images with a critical eye is an important first step in encouraging healthy body image in children.

At a time when they should feel secure with their body, too many children learn to feel anxious about weight and begin to make choices that contribute to the very problems they hope to avoid. Weight stigma and body dissatisfaction in fact lead to poorer eating and fitness choices, less physical activity, weight gain and diminished health.

As a result, researchers at the Yale Rudd Center for Obesity and Health and elsewhere have issued a call for weight stigma reduction programs to promote positive eating and fitness habits without regard to size. Most important to this is developing an identity based on who they are rather than how they look, choosing positive role models that support their deeper values, and actively embracing health and vitality through positive eating and physical activity. This is all part of the important conversation educators and parents must be having with children.

#2. Take a hard line on bullying.

Being bullied is a major contributing factor for depression and low self-esteem in children. Bullying behavior focuses on ‘difference’ and the difference can be real or perceived. In fact, recent research from a U.S-based anti-bullying organization revealed that special needs students, LGBT students, students who are overweight, and students who are perceived as “weak” are the most likely targets of bullying by others.
Weight is often one of the “differences” referenced in bullying.

The classroom, cafeteria, library, restrooms, on the bus, and on the playground are all areas where teachers and parents can strive to create safe and bully-free environments. A safe and supportive school climate can be one of the best tools in preventing bullying. Children need to feel safe or they can’t focus on learning.

The easiest way for teachers to take a hard line on bullying is to intervene immediately. It is important to only address the kids involved separately, never together. Also, forcing resolution in children will not teach them successful coping methods for the long term. Do not make the kids involved apologize or patch up relations on the spot

A recent survey of 250,000 children aged between 10 and 15 showed that nearly half have been bullied at school. And even if they had not been bullied, a quarter of the sample said they were worried about it.
Today, bullying does not just exist within the perimeter of the school. It can carry on day and night through the use of mobile phones and the internet via chat rooms and social media. In short, it can create a vicious cycle that can make a child or young person feel worthless and unvalued. Teachers are uniquely situated to stop bullying on the spot and create a safe learning environment in the school.

#3. Focus on personal strengths and relate to social media

The Internet and social media provide a platform for adolescent children to seek out images of what they want to look like, as well as an outlet through which children can perform outward comparisons with their peers and celebrities. Social media may not create new problems for children, but they do certainly intensify existing ones.

With social media, children are constantly critiquing and analyzing bodies in such a way that promotes body dissatisfaction, constant body surveillance, and disordered thoughts. All of these factors can lead to very serious vulnerabilities and make children susceptible to bullying.

Moving towards student-centered classrooms, which are big on collaboration, are one way teachers can begin to curb bullying by sharing control with students. Taking that one step further, teachers can become a participant and co-learner in discussion, asking questions and perhaps correcting misconceptions.

A simple activity is to give everyone a list of the personal strengths and get them to cross off the strength that is least like them one at a time until they reach three that are left. These are each person’s personal strengths. Consider getting everyone to write their personal strengths on stickers/paper and show them to the group.

Do students recognize the strength in themselves? What about the top strengths of others in the group? Identifying personal strengths is a great way to encourage positive feelings. In small groups, think of a way in which you could exercise your top personal strength more in the next week.

By facilitating a conversation about personal strengths and encouraging students to collaborate around this topic, teachers can begin to help children foster ideas of personal strengths.

In conclusion, by taking a hard line on bullying, focusing on personal strengths and teaching children to understand what’s realistic and what’s not, we can begin to help adolescent children encourage healthy body image now and always.

About the Author
Keir McDonald MBE is Chief Executive Office and Founder of EduCare, an online training solutions company that specialize in child protection, exploitation and online safety, and bullying and child neglect. EduCare is associated with both Kidscape and Family Lives and customers include over 4000 schools and colleges and 12000 pre-schools as well as councils, NHS, charities and more.

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