As a gynecologist, I occasionally see a woman who is struggling with a serious emotional problem. Sometimes she realizes that challenges like being stuck in an unhealthy relationship, substance use, self-harm, or eating disorders (anorexia, compulsive eating) have become lifelong battles. Many women cannot explain the issues that interfere with a healthy life. Too often, a woman’s first steps on this path began years before.
Pre-teens and teenagers are under lots of pressure these days. Recognizing emotional changes that are different from normal teenage angst is a hard part of parenting. One aspect of teens’ emotional and physical health that is important for parents to know about is body image. Body image is the term for how you think, feel, and act toward your own body. It can range from a healthy, positive and accurate image to an unhealthy, negative, and inaccurate view.
Pre-teens and teens are very aware of the changes occurring in their bodies as they reach puberty. Puberty takes several years and includes changes in height, weight, skin, hair, amount and distribution of fat, emotional changes, and the start of periods in girls. Teaching young people about these changes can help them feel comfortable with their bodies instead of being afraid or embarrassed.
Introducing Your Young Teen to Lifelong Preventive Care
Sometimes it is hard for parents to communicate with their child when it comes to sensitive topics. This is where doctors can help. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist (ACOG) actually recommends a girl’s first OB/GYN visit be between ages 13 and 15. This visit allows her to begin a relationship with her gynecologist, learn about her body, and ask any questions. Most of the time, a pelvic exam is not necessary until she is older.
Depending on your child’s age, we do encourage some one-to-one time with the doctor. A few minutes when the parent steps out of the room will give the young patient an opportunity to ask other personal questions or bring up problems. Feeling awkward about asking questions in front of a parent is typical. It also allows the doctor to assess for and counsel about mental health conditions, high-risk behaviors like alcohol and tobacco use, drug use, and self-harm behaviors. We use this appointment to teach about how the reproductive system works and reassure both the teen patient and parent that these changes are normal.
At this visit, we especially encourage teens to let us know if they ever have questions or concerns. Occasionally, things they think are normal, like heavy or painful periods, may in fact require further evaluation or management. An early gynecologic visit gives us a chance to encourage your teen to rely on a trusted source, like a parent or doctor, for advice or help rather than friends, the internet, or social media.
The visit can also provide a chance for a parent to share concerns about a child’s transition through puberty. Bumps in the road to adulthood are normal, but I like to remind parents about warning signs that may suggest a problem. A young person’s expressions of body image can signal healthy or unhealthy emotional development.
How can parents help their child develop a healthy body image?
- Model healthy body image and attitude toward your own body.
- Eat healthy meals together as a family and encourage a healthy amount of exercise. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends teens get about 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
- Avoid criticizing family and friends about weight or physical appearance. Discourage young people from comparing their looks to others.
- Establish a plan for social media use for your family. Encourage teens to be aware of how the media affect their emotions and actions. Check in frequently with them about social media use.
- Talk about unrealistic standards that they see online and on TV.
- Encourage pride in accomplishments and hard work. Help your teen set realistic goals.
- Listen and discuss. Ask their opinions. Acknowledge their feelings and encourage them to ask questions.
- Create opportunities to get to know your teen. Find healthy activities that you both enjoy to spend time together. Get to know your child’s friends as well.
- Establish expectations about making safe choices. Discuss what the consequences will be when mistakes are made.
- Communicate openly and honestly. Talk about healthy relationships, boundaries, consent, and valuing one’s own body.
- Help your teen find role models who share similar values.
- Encourage involvement in the community. Volunteering or community service can help young people feel validated, connected, and that they are part of something bigger.
Here are some resources that have more information about raising teens:
- American Academy of Pediatrics: https://www.healthychildren.org/english/ages-stages/teen/Pages/default.aspx
- CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/teens/index.html
- ACOG: https://www.acog.org/womens-health/healthy-teens
- National Eating Disorders Association: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
If you or your teen daughter have questions about their health, changes in their body, or other concerns like those addressed in this post, please call our office to set up an appointment.