This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2010 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
If you have a teenager, you might have noticed they spend a lot of time thinking about their appearance. We’ve all been there, as the teen years are a period of angst about our personal looks.
Sometimes, it seems teens can spend hours in the bathroom working on hair and makeup, and can't pass a mirror without looking at it.
It's normal for teens to spend a lot of time grooming, and that can feel like an abrupt change from the school-age years when it was a challenge to get them to even brush their hair. Though teen boys tend to be less vocal about it than girls, they may be just as concerned about their looks.
While parents might feel frustrated that their teens are so concerned with something that seems superficial, remember that underneath all that lip gloss, a deeper maturation process is occurring. During the teen years, young people are developing a sense of self-awareness, exploring who they are inside, trying out varying personalities and attitudes, and experimenting with different looks to match.
Be empathetic and patient, but if necessary, set boundaries on how much time your son or daughter can spend on grooming. After all, he or she still has to get to school on time, share the bathroom, do homework, and help around the house. Setting limits can help teens learn to manage time, be considerate of others' needs, share resources, and exercise a little self-discipline.
A teen whose concerns or insecurities consume an inordinate amount of energy or cause significant distress might have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an uncommon condition in which a person will exhibit obsessions and compulsions about appearance that can disrupt everyday functioning.
Unfortunately, it's common for teens to develop a negative body image or dissatisfaction with some aspect of their appearance. It doesn't help that the media and peer pressure can send powerful messages about the importance of looks and what's acceptable or ideal.
Parents play an important role in helping their teens develop a healthy body image. Besides complimenting appearances, praise the inner qualities that make your son or daughter a beautiful person. And teens are starting to care about how they appear to the opposite sex, so when a parent gives positive feedback to a child, that reassurance means a lot.
Remember to be a good role model. If you criticize your own looks, your teen is likely to see a harsh critic in the mirror, too. Set a good example by talking positively, appreciating your body for what it can do, and accepting its imperfections.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.