parent opinion

"Unkind words stick." Please don't comment on how my kids' look.

I am a mum of two boys, my eldest son is 11 and my youngest son is five and as their actual biggest fans, I think they are gorgeous.

After years of loving them and taking thousands of photos to capture treasured memories of their sweet faces, it physically hurts my heart when they tell me they dislike something about their appearance. 

It might be a perceived facial flaw they see in one of my many photos, or when they tell me they wish they had 'abs' like fitness trainer Joe Wicks on YouTube. I always respect their wishes and delete any photo they dislike and I try to reassure them. I also explain that Joe Wicks is an adult and they are still kids - so the abs might have to wait.

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Video via ABC Kids.

It hurts of course because I am their mother; I made them and I think they are beautiful as they are and at every stage. I understand their feelings, however, because I am human and I have spent a lifetime disliking and then learning to accept parts of my appearance.

I was an awkward ginger-haired, freckle-faced skinny kid myself, but at school I had a close group of friends that protected me from any nasty bullying. I recall wishing my freckles away and wanting blonde 'princess hair' like Barbie. 

Did someone say early 90s awkwardness? Laura as a tween. Image: Supplied. 

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When I became a teenager in the 1990s and 'cool girls' in magazines were suddenly Kate Moss-skinny, I disliked my curves. And there began a lifelong struggle that so many women face with our bodies.

Negative comments hurt.

As a mum, I wasn’t expecting my boys to pick at aspects of their appearances. 

According to some recent research on 1,000 kids in the UK by Simba, one in four kids aged between nine and 16 worry about their bodies. 

And four in 10 of that same group say they have received a negative comment from someone else about how they look. 

That's not okay. After all, these negative comments hurt both the child and their parents.

Especially when the comments are shared by an adult who really should know better. 

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There was the moment when my second son was born and the midwife pointed out his red hair and said, "Oh he’s ginger, he’ll be teased when he’s older!"

Seriously? You are teasing him, and he’s been earth-side for all of 20 seconds. 

As he is still only five, his red hair (or as he likes to call it - raspberry blonde) has only been the subject of compliments. But I can only hope that the midwife’s comment doesn’t come back to haunt us as he gets older.

As my eldest son approaches the teenage phase of life, any small reference to his physical appearance, however intended, can play on his mind for days and weeks. 

Unkind words stick, which was why I felt frustrated when a stranger made an unnecessary comment earlier this week.

While my husband and two sons were at a local shop, a woman made an offhand remark to my husband about my son's appearance while my son stood right in front of her. As if he was invisible.

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When he returned home and my husband explained what happened, I could see that my son was upset. I knew that this one careless comment about something he already felt sensitive about had made an impression, so Jules and I spent some time gently chatting with him. 

I didn't let it show, but it upset me too. When is it ever okay to comment on a kid's appearance so thoughtlessly?

I desperately want to get my reactions right for the benefit of my son, so I consulted an expert for advice.

Parenting coach Mel Burgess of Love Parenting says that even throwaway comments like this one can cut deep.

"It's a tricky terrain," Mel explains.

"At some stage, each child goes from freely moving through their day in the body they unquestioningly live in, to being generally or acutely aware that society values certain ways of looking as superior/inferior.

"That awareness comes from both throwaway comments and intended judgements made by other kids, us, teachers, coaches, friends, family and the random Helpful-Harolds they encounter as they move through the community.

"Seeing our kids reel from comments made about their appearance hits us hard."

So what as parents can we do to help our kids who worry about how they look? 

Knee-jerk reactions don't work.

One of the most important things Mel says is that we shouldn't overreact. While I might feel like marching straight up to the woman who upset my son and telling her what I really think, Mel says that won’t help.

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"Our well-intended knee-jerk responses are rarely a best-fit," she says.

Mel says there are six main ways we need to NOT respond to our kids when they come to us and they are: to over-reassure, to be dismissive, to over-talk about it, to self-blame, to overreact and be vengeful. 

"These responses are well-intended," Mel says.

"However, they all diminish our child's experience of us as a safe place for them to come to with whatever feeling they are having.

"Over time, they may keep from disclosing what they have going on in order to protect us from going into the palpable discomfort-zones we have demonstrated.

"When our kids experience us responding to them with our slow, curious interest (rather than with a heightened rush to move them through it) they learn we don't need to fear our feelings.

"They learn our feelings are clues our body sends us to help us navigate our days and are an indicator for them to turn to the options they have available."

Acknowledge first, then listen.

Mel says there are several things we can say and do to keep the conversation around kids' body image and appearance open.

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If your child is upset and comes to you feeling upset about a comment that someone has said to them about their body, Mel says the first thing to do is acknowledge their feelings and listen to them talk. 

She gives an example of a scenario where your tactless Nana said that your son or daughter couldn’t have anymore cake, because she's worried they’re 'getting fat'. 

After you acknowledge they are upset, Mel says you need to show them you understand and are on their side by saying something like:

"I find it strange how much the way people look gets talked about. How about you?"  

Next, Mel says to offer connection by asking:

"What do you wish Nana knew (about how it felt to be you) when she said that, and stopped you having more cake?" 

Listen to them talk and then validate their feelings by saying something like:

"You love Nana and really care about what she thinks of you. It makes sense that your feelings rose up when that happened." 

Allow them to 'name it to tame it' by asking:

"Which feeling was it you noticed showed up?"

Then give them a hug, ask them if they felt okay talking about it, and see what they want to do next. Do they want to talk to Nana about it or just leave it? Give them agency to navigate the situation with your support. 

Mel says to end the conversation by giving them some options and asking if they want some space or to help you do something like cook dinner. Then sit quietly with them while they decide to give them a sense of security before you both get on with your day.

I want to help my boys navigate their journey with their body image as best I can, but as Mel says, its tricky terrain. 

I can't control unhelpful or hurtful comments from other people, but I can certainly control how I react and support my boys if it happens again. 

Do you have experience of someone commenting on your kids appearance? How did you deal with it and how did it make you feel? Tell us below.

Did you know we have a whole family focussed community you can join on Facebook for more discussions like this? Join the Mamamia Parents Facebook group and follow  Mamamia Parents on Instagram and tell us what #parentinglookslike for you!

Feature Image: Supplied.

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