Helping Your Child Cope with Body-based Teasing
Please note: For ease in reading, we have used mostly "she" and "her" in the description below even though eating disorders exist in men, women, girls, and boys. This advice is suitable for a child of either gender.
Mainstream American culture glorifies thinness. Although not everyone buys into this body ideal, weight bias is common. Perhaps you recall episodes from your own childhood when you were the target or the perpetrator of hurtful body-based comments. When you were growing up, teasing occurred face-to-face and in the form of gossip (spreading rumors and lies), passing notes in class, excluding the individual from social activities, or refusing to talk to her. For today’s children, the problem of bullying is even more complicated. The increasing popularity of mobile phones, camera phones and other online devices has stretched the boundaries of teasing far beyond the school and playground. Now that electronic communication is an integral part of youth culture, a targeted individual may be vulnerable any time she accesses the Internet, even in her own home.
Children who have been teased about their bodies are often apprehensive about informing their parents. Yet mean-spirited body comments from peers can lead a child to feel “down” about herself and may increase her risk of developing abnormal eating behaviors. In order to keep the lines of communication open between you and your child, you’ll want to converse with her on an ongoing basis about her social life conveying that you would like to hear not only about her good experiences but also about her not-so-good ones.
If your child tells you that she is the target of bullying, listen carefully as she explains what is happening, accept her account of the incidents as fact, and respond with empathy. Statements such as the following are likely to be helpful: “I’m sorry those girls have been teasing you. It’s understandable that you are angry;” or “You must have felt alone/scared when the kids were calling you names;” or “I’d imagine getting Sasha’s mean email on Saturday morning made your entire day hard.” Whether the bully is operating offline, online, or – as is often the case – in both venues, there are steps you can take to help your loved one reclaim her freedom.
Approaches to Offline Teasing
Your child will need a defense strategy. If she has friends who have been bullied about the size or shape of their bodies, you can suggest trying the approaches that worked well for them. Once your child has forged a viable plan, the next step is to increase her confidence to use it. This is where role-playing comes in. You or your child can pretend to be the bully while the other applies the new strategy; then exchange roles.
Developing assertiveness skills takes time and it is important for you to offer your loved one the space and support she needs. Praise her for her bravery and perseverance, remembering that she is likely to experience insecurities as she learns to disarm her teaser(s). In particular, you’ll want to reassure your child that being teased is not her fault and that comments from bullies say nothing about who she is or how worthy she is. Focus on her strengths and help her understand that she need not give her aggressor(s) the power to define her.
In general, it is not advisable to contact the bully’s parents. If the teasing increases or places your child in danger, you need to notify her school. Find out whether her school has anti-bullying policies. Is body size teasing on the list of behaviors that are unacceptable? Some schools have held anti-bullying campaigns in which students play an active role by creating posters and other materials that discourage teasing and underscore the value of individual differences.
Electronic communication offers bullies layers of anonymity that “traditional” (school- and neighborhood-based) teasing does not; this is one reason why children might text cruel, weight-biased comments that they would not make in person. Some young people are so quick to click “forward” that they are not always judicious about what information they pass on. And once a demeaning text message or image travels to multiple addresses, it is very hard for the targeted individual to identify its source.
In general, you will want to advise your child not to reply to an electronic message that makes her feel badly about the size or shape of her body. Does she know who sent the offensive content? Is the online teasing associated with “real time” bullying at school or summer camp? Depending upon the severity and risk-level of the cyberbullying, appropriate parental responses may range from monitoring the child’s online activity and notifying her school, to technological interventions (such as having your Internet service provider block the offensive sender), and – under certain circumstances – seeking legal council.
Nowadays, the issue of cyberbullying is often in the news. Follow the discourse – and feel free to participate in it – as educators, lawmakers, mental health professionals, Internet providers, and parents devise ways to make online communication safer for children and adolescents.
Seeking Positive Social Environments for your Child
Encourage your child’s involvement in rewarding activities that will help counter the potential emotional harm inflicted by the bully. The idea here is to look for a healthy, positive environment
– perhaps an after-school program, a neighborhood activity, or a youth group – in which she can “be herself” and make new friends.
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Eisenberg, M.E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M. Associations of weight-based teasing and emotional wellbeing among adolescents. Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine. 2003; 57: 733–38.
Herzog, D., Franko, D., Cable, P. Unlocking the Mysteries of Eating Disorders. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J. W. “Cyberbullying research.” Cyberbullying Research Center (www.cyberbullying.us). (Accessed 3/2/10).
Simmons, Rachel. You Tube. American Program Bureau, 2008. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5twSvPY7d-M). (Accessed 3/3/10).
Wired Kids, Inc. “Stop Cyberbullying.” (http://www.stopcyberbullying.org/index2.html). (Accessed 3/17/10).
Yale University; Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “Weight Bias and Stigma”
(http://yaleruddcenter.org/what_we_do.aspx?id=10). (Accessed 3/2/10).
This page was posted on April 5, 2010.