Recently I sent an email to all our clinicians asking one question: “If you could give parents or guardians one piece of advice on helping their teens have good body image, what would it be?”

I was going to post a few quotes as an entry, but as it turned out almost everybody had the same answer: Parents need to role-model body satisfaction, and focus on health instead of weight and appearance when discussing their bodies and the bodies of others.

I’m certainly not against anyone trying to be more healthy, or lose weight in a healthy way. But when pursuing health, think about the example you’re setting. Are you weighing yourself daily and discussing your “failure”, saying how fat you feel, comparing yourself to celebrities, or insulting your body? Are you going on crash diets or “fasts”? Are you ignoring feelings of hunger? None of these things are healthy for teenagers… In fact, they’re not healthy for anyone.

If obese teens want to lose weight, that weight loss should be safe, healthy, and long-term. Obese teens can engage in losing weight and still have a healthy body image and good self-esteem; in fact, we encourage them to. We advise teenagers in our obesity program to focus on signals of hunger and fullness, eat until they are satisfied, eat lots of fresh produce, exercise daily, drink water, and get enough sleep. We also ask them to focus on what they like about themselves and their bodies, and focus on being strong and healthy as opposed to thin or a certain number on a scale.

If you want to lose weight and be a good role model at the same time, try following healthy guidelines for long-term weight loss that don’t damage your body or your mind. Speak with your doctor about what might work well for you.

Role modeling goes beyond what you say about yourself. Just as you want your child to be kind to him or herself, you need to be kind to others. Refrain from making negative comments on the weight or looks of other people. Otherwise, your teen may end up seeing the world as a very cruel and judgmental place when it comes to appearances.

Please know I’m not trying to imply that if an adolescent has body image issues, it is the fault of their parents or guardians. There are many other factors in the equation: other family members, peers, the media, genetic predispositions, school health education, etc. Unfortunately, sometimes these factors can be difficult or impossible to change.

I can’t promise that parents or guardians who have wonderful self-esteem, and carefully refrain from commenting on the appearance of others, will have a kid who thinks the same way. But if you want your teen to appreciate their body for its health and ability, as opposed to its shape or weight, a good place to start is to do this yourself- and do it out loud. Help your kid learn that their body can do amazing things, and they need to keep it fed, fit, healthy, and strong.

Of course, I’m only addressing one aspect of how to encourage a good body image. In what ways do you model positive self-esteem? What are some ideas you have on how to incorporate a positive body image and positive body talk into your family? How can we influence other factors on a teen’s self-esteem and body image?