06/03/2014 02:34 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2014

Addressing an Epidemic: Self Esteem and Girls

I recently received a Facebook message from an old college friend in Minnesota asking for help.

"Please help! Our oldest daughter just entered kindergarten this year and is already exhibiting body image issues; we are so scared and want to make sure we are aware of everything that is going on and are being proactive."

It was no surprise to me that kids are dealing with this stuff at an age earlier than necessary. By the age of 12 I had already developed an eating disorder and long before that I had struggled with my own esteem and body image. My peers called me thunder thighs, my dad said I needed to shape up and that I had big bones and an "athletic" body. All of the girls my age were slim and I didn't want an athletic body. All of the women in magazines were tall and blonde with long legs and the perfect body. I wanted to be without curves, without flaw.

This desire for flawlessness becomes more and more prevalent at an earlier age. With an unrealistic portrayal of women in the media, it is no wonder why the "mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times as high as the death rate of all causes of death for females aged 15 to 24."

We inherit out parents' beliefs about ourselves, themselves. We grow up internalizing the messages we receive from our parents and peers. Sadly, many kids, especially girls, watch their mothers' loathing themselves in the mirror. "I need to lose weight, I look tired, and my hair looks... I wish I were just a little taller, thinner, and..." They start hearing those things about themselves. Then, children bring those same messages to their schools and either diminishes the appearance of themselves or their peers -- hence, girls coming home at age 5 saying they are "fat." There are other struggles of dealing with mean girls and bullies.

If our fathers are sexist and chauvinistic we hear them idolizing the "perfect" women celebrities, see the posters they have in their garage of swimsuit models, and listen to them value only appearance. We learn that our value comes merely from our ability to please and look good, and not only look good but look a certain way.

If your mother expresses shame or dissatisfaction or judgement about herself and her body, about other women and their looks, you are likely to be insecure and think their is something wrong with you.

Now, given that children mirror everything they see, we need to recognize the effects of our actions and be responsible for making changes. When an individual chooses to become a parent they must consider the full well being of their offspring; and that means doing whatever they can to make themselves mentally, emotionally and physically healthy.

Several concerned peers and parents who have encountered the same ugly issue have approached me asking for help. My goal is to support you in having the resources necessary to effectively support your self-esteem and the self-esteem of your children. Here are some factors that affect self-esteem and some solutions for how you can support the healthy development of children. If you want your child to have a healthy self-esteem you need to be responsible for your own esteem and question whether the inherent message we are sending to children is really the most important one. Do we teach them that beauty is what they look like or who they are to people?

"Ugly live up on the inside, Ugly be hurtful, mean person. Is you one a them peoples?' -- The Help, Katherine Stockett.

Factors, Resources and Solutions

1. It Begins With YOU.

- Start by building awareness of your own self-talk. Notice your thoughts about YOU -- your body, your self; what aspects or traits do you focus on and value most about yourself? Do you focus on your looks? Do you focus on fitting into the "perfect" jeans? Can you be seen in public without your hair or makeup done? Do you often comment on the looks of other people, other women? "Oh, she is so pretty." Or, "She is fat," or "Her hair looks terrible..."

- Replace negative thoughts with positive ones; focus on what works -- even if you don't yet believe it, do it.

- Focus on the characteristics of others.

- Keep communication open with kids, asks questions, praise them for their contributions and thoughtfulness. Praise them for the qualities they exhibit.

2. Know your environment

- Get to know your kid's friends.

- Get to know the parents of your children's friends and peers.

- Be the safe place that all kids can gather.

- Monitor social media, television, and text messaging; create boundaries for them.

3. Develop a Parent's Network

- Develop a group of parents that have the same goals and concerns, find parents that are willing to be 100 percent responsible for the well being of the community.

-Create a plan for how to deal with difficult children and parents; be prepared for situations as a group so that when issues arise, you all have a way of dealing with each child or parent powerfully without dimishing each other or dismissing the situation.

- Lobby for media literacy programs -- if your district has yet to implement a program, contact other national organizations that could start a chapter in your area or could equip you with the resources to develop one locally.

- Write letters to advertisers asking them to remove harmful media messages; write letters to your senators and governor asking them to make realistic media a priority.


- Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher Ph.D.

- Real Boys: Rescueing our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, William Pollack

- What to Say When you Talk to Yourself, Shad Helmstetter, Ph.D.