In college, a couple of girls in my friend group developed eating disorders. When our group discovered evidence of these issues during our sophomore year, we were floored. From the outside, it seemed like our friends were confident, happy, and settled. We had no idea the pain they were in. Thankfully our school had a robust system of mental health resources, and after months of therapy and hard work, our friends started to develop a more positive relationship with food and with their bodies. 

Somewhere along the way, these girls had internalized the message that they weren’t “pretty enough,” “thin enough,” “fit enough,” or simply “enough.” An unhealthy self-image had taken over their internal thought life. But it wasn’t as if they arrived at college and suddenly struggled with having a healthy view of their bodies. 

  • 40–60% of elementary-aged girls are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat.1
  • More than 50% of girls and 30% of boys ages 6 to 8 think their ideal body weight is less than their current weight.2
  • Children whose mothers are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risk for repeating those unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.3

If self-image and body issues begin this early, it stands to reason that intervention and prevention efforts should begin early as well. Here are some tips for how you can partner with families to instill a healthy self-image in the kids in your ministry. 

Encourage small group leaders (and parents) to talk about their own bodies in healthy ways. Model it in your own conversations. (Instead of saying, “I don’t like the way my legs look in shorts” say, “I feel more confident when I wear cute pants instead of shorts.”) Give leaders group-appropriate examples. (Instead of saying, “I’ve got to get to the gym and lose some weight,” say, “I need to start working out again because it makes me stronger and healthier.”) Encourage leaders to relate physical activity to the overall goal of wellness, not exclusively to body weight. 

Make sure you’re offering prizes other than candy. Every kid (and kid at heart) loves candy, which makes it a go-to prize for a kids’ ministry environment. But we might be inadvertently reinforcing the message that anytime you win a game or do something “good,” you deserve an edible treat. Candy can be a great reward for behavior or winning a game, but it shouldn’t be the only reward in your environments. Try offering prizes like stickers, pencils, bouncy balls, and other tchotchkes, in addition to candy.

Pay attention to who’s on (or not on) your stage. Having a gift for leading onstage is not something that’s limited to those who fit the conventional mold of what is beautiful. In any given month, do you have all body types and sizes represented onstage? What about people of different races and ethnicities? The stage is a natural place of elevation. The kids in your ministry look to who’s on stage to guide them through the worship experience, and they need to be able to see someone “like them” in positions of leadership. 

Inspire kids to be proud of themselves. Culture often confuses humility with negative self-talk. When we receive a compliment or praise from another person, we’re often tempted to downplay it or make an excuse for why we don’t completely deserve the positive remark. But when we allow kids to be proud of themselves for things like having self-control, learning something new, doing well in a sport, or even just remembering to be kind, we’re communicating that it’s okay to feel good about yourself.

Redirect negative self-talk. Kids need to internalize the message that they have value and something to contribute to the world. Putting themselves down when they make a mistake or when their craft doesn’t look like everyone else’s craft encourages a negative self-image. If we redirect their comments toward something positive—such as how a craft that doesn’t turn out right is a chance to learn what works and what doesn’t—kids will see their mistakes as learning opportunities instead of shortcomings. 

Do you have any small group leaders or other leaders who excel in this area? Invite them to lead a special event or virtual hangout time, where they talk to kids in your ministry about self-image and the importance of taking care of our bodies. (To help kids feel comfortable talking about this topic, have a girls-only version and a boys-only version of the event.) Or let them share their stories and experience with parents and caregivers, perhaps by featuring them in the family ministry’s newsletter or as part of a larger training event for parents.  

Our internal thoughts and emotions shape and define how we think of ourselves and how we relate to the world. The ultimate goal is to continuously give our kids tools to develop a healthy self-image and teach them to see themselves the way God sees them. Imagine what our kids could do if they have confidence in themselves and are equipped to become the best version of who God created them to be! 

Want more? Looking for more ways to support kids’ self-image and acceptance of themselves? The Parent Cue team just released What Is Beautiful? This new book by Abbie Sprünger and Ashley Snyder offers a fresh look at what beauty truly is and where it comes from. Read it with your favorite 6-to 12-year-old girls. Find out more here.

Extra Resources

  1. “Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders,” Nationaleatingdisorders.org, accessed October 23, 2020, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders.
  2. “Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image,” Commonsensemedia.org, January 20, 2015, accessed October 23, 2020, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/children-teens-body-image-media-infographic. 
  3. “Statistics & Research on Eating Disorders,” Nationaleatingdisorders.org, accessed October 23, 2020, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders.