Self-image definition, tips for helping teens develop a positive self-image and how to improve a negative self-image
By Karina Martinez, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) at CHOC
Before we begin, what is self-image? It’s important to first define what self-image is to better understand how to model and promote a positive self-image for children and teens. Self-image refers to how someone sees themselves – both internally and externally. This includes their perception of their personality, abilities, and appearance and how they think others perceive them.
According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, body image is “the perception that a person has of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings that result from that perception.”
To think of self-image versus body image, the “self” encompasses more than just the body; it also refers to personality traits and how someone sees themselves as a person. It’s important to distinguish between how teens see themselves, feel about themselves and think about themselves because they may not always be the same and it can impact how they behave.
Some behaviors or symptoms that parents may see because of negative self-image include but are not limited to: irritability, depression, anxiety, difficulty developing and maintaining friendships, isolation and feelings of worthlessness.
However, when parents help foster a positive self-image for their teens, they can improve their mental, social and emotional well-being.
How is self-image developed?
Self-image develops in childhood. It is based on environmental influences, including what is modeled to them by the people around them (friends, family, teachers, etc.).
The interactions you’ve had with your teens when they were younger shape them and reinforce what they think and feel about themselves. Self-image is also shaped by the interactions you have with others in the presence of your teens now or when they were children. From a young age, children will mimic and adopt the language and actions the adults around them.
Lastly, self-image is influenced by what they watch, especially now in an era where teens spend most of their time on their phones, computers and watching television.
By modeling positive, affirming language and encouraging your children and teens to view social media sites that promote positive self-image, you can ensure that they are recognizing their self-worth and strengths.
How to model a positive self-image for your teens
Promoting a positive self-image often starts with a teen’s caregivers. As caregivers, you have the power to model speaking to yourself and others in a compassionate, empathic way to model this for your teens. The following are steps you can take to help your teens develop a positive self-image.
Start with validation.
Before engaging in these steps remember to always praise and acknowledge your teen’s feelings to normalize their experiences. Also consider praising your teen for all the good they do, and for all their positive qualities and characteristics. Make sure your praise is always authentic.
Encourage your teens to acknowledge their positive qualities and strengths.
Teens with low self-image may want to compare themselves to others. When you can direct them to focus on their own strengths it can help them focus on a positive perception of themselves.
Help your teen examine and challenge any negative thoughts they have of how others see them.
Explain to your teens how self-image is developed and how this could have impacted their feelings, and thoughts about themselves. Let them know that they can change their thoughts.
Use curiosity and empathy when responding to your teen.
Instead of offering advice right away, listen to what they are saying and ask questions that could challenge their way of thinking.
Teach and use feeling words to encourage having open conversations with your teen.
This models awareness of emotions and focusing on the feeling instead of putting too much focus on the content of what they are sharing.
Normalize that developing a positive self-image is a process.
Developing a positive self-image can take time. Reassure your kids that they have a support system in you to work through it with.
Observe how they speak about themselves, how they see themselves and their expectations of themselves.
Sometimes teens develop unrealistic expectations of themselves and will set high standards that can lead to low self-image if the standards are not met. By reminding your teens to be flexible and helping them to reframe mistakes as learned experiences, you can help your teen develop a more positive self-image.
How your teen can improve their negative self-image
The good news is self-image is not permanent and it is constantly changing based on the factors that influence how teens view themselves.
For teens who are struggling with their self-image, one way they can learn healthy and accurate views of themselves is by learning to use coping strategies. One coping strategy that we can encourage teens to engage in is positive affirmations. Examples of positive affirmations can include statements such as “I am smart” or, “I am brave.”
Another coping strategy teens can use to develop a positive self-image is practicing gratitude exercises. Gratitude exercises are activities that help you appreciate the good things in your life, no matter how big or small. Gratitude exercises include journaling, going on mindfulness walks or giving thanks to others.
Reminders and support for your teen’s self-image
Remember these steps take time and practice. It’s important to be patient with your teens as you help them in the development of a healthy self-image. The reality is that in trying to help your teen boost their self-image you may have to repeat yourself often, but consistency is key. There may be other reasons that are impacting your teen’s self-image and it’s important to have open communication with them to understand the situation.
For example, if your child is being bullied at school, it can cause feelings of rejection and exclusion, which can lead to a negative self-image. If you need continued support after reading this article, consider seeking out professional guidance or parent support groups. You can start by reaching out to your teen’s physician or find a therapist to help you and your teen should you notice that your teen is engaging in concerning behaviors.
On Psychology Today’s website, you can find a therapist that accepts the insurance you have and is closest to you in location.
Get more expert health advice delivered to your inbox monthly by subscribing to the KidsHealth newsletter here.
The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.