Helping kids come to grip with image and identity

From steroid-using athletes to celebrities who bounce between clubs and rehab, today’s role models can leave a lot to be desired.

From steroid-using athletes to celebrities who bounce between clubs and rehab, today’s role models can leave a lot to be desired.

It seems the greater the fall from grace, the greater the fame – or infamy. What’s a parent to do?

Teens and pre-teens are particularly susceptible to celebrity overexposure and the media because they’re at the stage in their lives when they are trying on identities and need to feel accepted by their peers.

Mimicking the stars in behavior or dress is part of that transfer of attachment from parents to peer groups. In other words, it’s part of growing up.

But how much is too much? Do you say yes to the belly-baring midriff, but no to the navel ring?

Our counselors at Youth Eastside Services often hear from parents wondering just where they should draw the line. One mom, who was lobbied by her 8-year-old daughter for thong underwear, considered buying them so her daughter wouldn’t feel left out.

Hello! Whose values are we teaching here?

I know the pressure on parents can be intense from kids who want things because all their friends have them. We want our children to fit in, so we cave.

Believe me, advertisers know this, too. Young “consumers” are increasingly the target of messages, images and even products that are beyond their years.

As part of our dating violence prevention program, we will have teens go through magazines, cut out ads and ask themselves, “What is really being sold here?”

Young women, in particular, get the message that they have to be sexy and desirable to have power. Girls will tell our counselors that, to be attractive, women have to be blond, thin and large breasted.

Young men also have their share of body-image issues. We’ve seen boys who have developed eating disorders in their quest to look like their sports heroes.

While it may feel like you’re trying to plug that proverbial dike with your finger, you can help your son or daughter see beneath all the gloss and glamour, whether it’s a poor celebrity role model or a jeans ad.

Get them to reflect on what makes them feel good on the inside: achievements, interests, helping others. And take advantage of those teachable moments to encourage some critical thinking: “Would you rather have people like you for who you are or for what you look like?”

Of course, even with all this dialogue, your daughter may still want to get her eyebrow pierced or dye her hair orange.

Before you say no, remember that parents get a limited number of “draw-the-line-in-the-sand” cards before their child mounts an all-out rebellion.

Ask yourself: “Is this a safety issue?” If not, you might want to skip this battle and allow them their experiment in self-expression.

That doesn’t mean throwing your values out the window. In the long run, those are the values your kids will return to, even though, they don’t appear to be listening right now.

Patti Skelton-McGougan is the executive director of Youth Eastside Services. For more information, call (425) 747-4937 or go to

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