Body Image and ADHD: How to help kids who dislike their bodies

It’s heartbreaking when your son or daughter shares that they don’t like their bodies. They may dislike their shape, their height, their hair color, their fingernails, their nose or their feet. All too often, kids (and adults) compare themselves to an unattainable ideal of beauty put forth by mainstream media and culture. We see actors, models and social media icons who look polished and seemingly perfect.  It seems impossible for us to measure up because their images are carefully crafted and maintained with lots of money and support staff. Kids also perceive other kids as prettier, stronger and more popular. Sometimes family members may criticize us in particularly cruel and painful ways which makes it even more difficult to love who we are. For kids with ADHD who often get on a hamster wheel of negative thinking and may already feel diminished academically or socially, it’s especially tough to stop the repetitive, critical thoughts in their heads. 

Shifting your views about your body means accepting who you are, what you look like and appreciating our differences. We need to remind kids that yes, they’re not perfect but no one is. Of course, the work is really about what’s inside as much as what’s on the outside. We all have to learn to fill up our own approval cups instead of holding them out for others to fill with compliments and reassurance. This is really tough for kids with ADHD who want to fit in and be accepted by their peers. They want something about themselves to be “normal” since their learning styles are different. Outer appearance, however, may give them some relief but it won’t mend the insecurities inside of them. You really can’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides. We have to teach our kids and teens that people may look one way but have something entirely unexpected going on inside of them.

To challenge distorted or negative perceptions about body image, start by helping your son or daughter create a supportive team of caring friends, teachers, mentors and family who love all parts of them.

  1. Help them take stock of the parts of themselves that they like, make a list and post this in their room or keep in a journal.
  2. Make a second list of things they don’t like and what, if any, action they could take to change those items.   
  3. Name a positive aspect of these parts. For instance, if you don’t really like your feet (like me–they are flat and I have small toes), you could think about what a great job they do of holding you up each day and helping you walk places. Since I can’t change them, I try to polish my toenails with a fun color to make them look nicer and deal with them as they are. Your daughter might not care for your straight hair, but it’s healthy, shiny and looks good in a ponytail. Your son may feel overweight but is very strong and his size is useful on the football field.
  4. Go through their clothes and keep the items that they love and make them feel good to wear.  Each day, encourage them to dress in something that makes them feel good or boosts their mood. I had one nine year old client who told me: “I dress in the color that I feel that day. Like, if I’m feeling purple, then it’s a purple day.” Go with it. Perhaps ask a caring friend or relative to come over and help your child or teen purge unwanted items or shop online for some new, fun stuff that you can afford.

If people around your youngster are critical of their appearance, brainstorm ways they can deal with these comments appropriately. In a calm moment, create one or two comebacks that are witty and easy to remember and then practice using them. If you need to intervene with teachers or school administrators to set limits because of suspected bullying, talk this over with your son or daughter and protect their safety. It’s not okay for someone to criticize your body and kids need tools to convey that it has to stop.  Saying it was a joke or they were just being sarcastic is also unacceptable. These are simply passive aggressive ways to put someone down.  If necessary, encourage your son or daughter to take a break from interacting with this person for a while.  

Sadly, it’s typical for many kids, especially tweens and teens, to dislike some parts of their body. Sometimes dissatisfaction with one’s appearance can have serious and disturbing consequences. Body dysmorphic disorder, bulimia and anorexia are serious mental health conditions that require immediate attention. There’s a difference between casually disliking how your bottom looks in a certain outfit or wanting a smaller nose or wishing your torso was more muscular and actively trying to change your appearance or manage uncomfortable feelings with obsessive thinking and self-harming behaviors. If you notice that your child is seeing bodily defects or malformations that do not exist, if your child is showing changes in how, when and what they eat or if they tell you that they are throwing up on purpose, consult their pediatrician or primary care provider immediately.

In the meantime, focus on healthy living. Offer positive body-affirming comments and monitor how you talk about your physique. Our kids notice everything and take in what we say and do. Accepting ourselves, warts and all, is a process that benefits everybody. Empathize with their feelings and also remember to, as the song says, “Accentuate the positive!” without being a pollyanna.