It's normal for teens to be concerned about their appearance and strive to be attractive. But if your teen obsesses about her appearance and is so overly critical of perceived minor flaws that it causes severe distress, she might have body dysmorphic disorder. Approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population has BDD, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Teens with BDD obsess over perceived facial imperfections or body parts, such as breast size or the length of their legs. Skillful parenting can help your teen overcome her distorted self-image.
Emphasize the deeper qualities that matter more than appearance, according to KidsHealth. Begin a dialogue by asking her to express what she believes an ideal body and appearance is. Listen with empathy and understanding, without interrupting or arguing. After she shares, it's your turn to express what inner qualities you believe makes a person truly beautiful, which are far more important than outer appearance. They might include qualities such as kindness, loyalty and compassion. If you suffered from insecurities about your own appearance as a teen, share how you overcame those negative feelings and learned to love your body.
Teens who suffer from BDD have distorted perceptions about their appearance and suffer from low self-esteem. If you're critical of your teen's appearance, it can trigger or influence BDD, according to WebMD. Offer her praise and compliments whenever possible to help build self-confidence. When she's leaving for school in the morning, you might say, "You have such a beautiful smile" or "You look so pretty in that dress." Equally as important is to praise her for deeper qualities that matter more than looks, recommends KidsHealth. You might compliment your teenage son on an act of generosity by saying, "You're one of the most unselfish people I know." When you notice your teenage daughter displaying kindness, you might say, "You have such a big heart."
Shift the Focus
As a parent of a teen with BDD, you want to help her understand that appearance is largely superficial. Her self-image should also include her personality, character and interests and strengths, according to KidsHealth. To help her shift the focus from obsessing about appearance, nurture her interests and talents. If she's creative, sign her up for acting, photography, writing, art or voice classes. If she's musically inclined, hire a piano teacher to give her lessons after school. Physical activities such as team sports, dance, yoga, tai chi and Pilates can help her develop an appreciation for her body and all it can accomplish. As she becomes more physically sure of herself, she'll likely become grateful for her body's strength, flexibility and other capabilities.
It's no wonder so many teens feel they're unattractive with the unrealistic portrayal of men and women in the media. Constantly being exposed to physically images of celebrities and models in magazines, TV, music videos, websites, and movies leads them to believe only a certain body type is acceptable, according to MayoClinic.com. Airbrushing and editing can create flawless skin, perfect bodies and features, but it's not real. Encouraging your teen to set more realistic standards can help her appreciate her appearance the way it is. Go through a stack of fashion and celebrity magazines with your teen to show how the media manipulates images and stress that it's all an illusion -- normal people don't look that way.
Be a Role Model
The way you view and speak about your own appearance creates a powerful example, according to KidsHealth. If you're excessively critical of your body and looks, it can lead your teen to internalize your negative views and cast the same disparaging eye on herself. Even if your teen overhears you complaining about your weight or appearance on the phone to a friend, it can have a powerful impact and lead her to be equally as harsh on herself. But by accepting your appearance, weight and any perceived flaws rather than bemoaning them, you set a positive example.
When to Seek Professional Help
The cause of BDD is unknown, but it seems to be related to poor serotonin regulation, which is a chemical neurotransmitter in the brain, according to KidsHealth. BDD can lead teens to have problems in school or with work, become so self-conscious about their appearance that they refuse to be seen in public, and be at high risk for severe depression and suicide, according to WebMD. If your teen's BDD adversely affects her moods or ability to function, seek treatment from a mental health worker. A therapist can help her overcome her irrational beliefs and identify the root causes of her BDD. The therapist can also help teach you how to respond appropriately to your teen's anxiety, distress and constant need for reassurance.