When family banter turns toxic

Sad girl sitting with by herself

Families tease each other all the time. Banter is part of the way we bond. But when banter and teasing focus on appearance, we don’t always realise the effect it can have on the self-esteem of children.
 
Young people are particularly vulnerable to feeling insecure about their faces and bodies - and what seems like meaningless teasing can feel hurtful to the person on the receiving end. Despite appearances, young people care deeply about what their parents and siblings think about them. A remark from someone they care about – that they look fat today, or spotty, or weedy - can have a lasting effect on a young person who is already feeling vulnerable about the changing shape of their body or face.
 
The Dove Self-Esteem Project’s Uniquely Me Parent Guide, which you can download for free, has lots of information about young people’s body confidence, along with conversation starters and tips to help your child deal with all the ways that their self-esteem can be undermined.
 
One study found that most girls in the UK think they aren’t pretty enough. Social media pressure, and selfie culture especially, can make young people feel that what matters most about them is their looks. At the very least, this can distract them from all the other interesting and useful things they could be thinking about or doing. At worst, it can have a damaging effect on their mental health. As Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society says, widespread misery about appearance ‘is ruining girls’ lives, and we are letting it happen.’
 
It’s not just girls, either. We set impossibly high standards for appearance, including for boys and young men. We’re all only too ready to put ourselves down. (Can you imagine saying ‘I think I look great today’ - or what you’d think of someone else who did? Being negative about appearance is hardwired into the way we talk to each other.)
 
The Dove Self-Esteem Project’s Uniquely Me Parent Guide has masses of useful content to help here, especially in Chapter 6 on family banter.
 
Here are some things you can think about to avoid this trap of putting your child down (for something they can’t alter, and which will probably change soon anyway!)
 

  • Be positive about their looks. Dawn French once said her dad always told her she looked amazing: she credited this with giving her the confidence to become an actress and comedian.
  • Don’t make their looks the subject of banter, and don’t turn your annoyance or frustration with your child into comments about their appearance.
  • If they complain about their looks, ask them what they like about their appearance or think is good about their style. Be ready to say what you admire too.
  • Make a point of noticing celebrities or successful people who don’t meet conventional standards of beauty. Make it clear that you believe that there’s not just one way of looking. Celebrate what’s unique and interesting about your child, yourself, and everyone else.
  • Don’t compare their looks – or your own – to other people’s or criticise the looks of others. Your attitude to appearance is incredibly influential, and your approach to your own looks has the potential to make them much stronger and more resilient about their own.
  • Encourage them to see their body as useful, giving them a helpful start in life.
  • Focus on your child’s character strengths and qualities, and make sure they know you love them for how they are inside.
  • If someone starts a new fitness regime, ask them how it’s affecting their outlook and whether they feel stronger, rather than if they’re losing weight.
  • Encourage your child to exercise, if that’s feasible. (All the focus on appearance comes at a time when we move around less than ever. In the past, when we needed our bodies for work, how they looked would have seemed relatively unimportant.) But make exercise about feeling good and having fun. Research shows that physical activities that focus on health, enjoyment and relaxation, rather than physical appearance, lead to more positive feelings.
(For teachers and professionals, the Dove Self-Esteem Project also offers a series of workshops and resources with practical activities to help boost children’s self-esteem. Download them for free here).
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‘Uniquely me’ is packed with advice and practical activities for parents to help nurture their children's body confidence and self-esteem. It contains advice from Dove Self-Esteem Project global experts from the fields of psychology, body image, self-esteem, eating disorders and media representation to create a resource for parents that is focused on advice and action.
Download your free ‘Uniquely Me’ parent guide

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