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PARENTING : Just the Way You Are : Some kids are bigger, smaller, heavier or thinner than others. They should be encouraged to put less weight on looks.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to The Times. </i>

Growing up is hard to do.

What with raging hormones, erupting acne, budding breasts and cracking voices, it’s no wonder preteens could just die from embarrassment about, well, everything. The pubescent years are especially tough for kids who feel they look different from their peers--the husky girl who towers over her classmates, for example, or the diminutive boy who gets bypassed when basketball teams are chosen.

But adolescents aren’t the only ones to suffer angst about their appearance. At the tender age of 5 or 6, youngsters have already learned to be self-conscious, according to Sondra Goldstein, a Van Nuys clinical psychologist who specializes in children’s issues.

“By the time they enter first grade, children are aware of differences in faces, height and body types,” Goldstein said. “They are sorted by size for school photographs. Little boys who watch sports on television are bombarded with statistics on the height and weight of athletes. Children who are overweight get pressured by their parents to not eat. I see little girls as young as 6 who are bothered by their weight, and I see little boys who are aware of their height differences.”

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While such youthful concerns often disappear with time, it is important to take them seriously, according to Dr. Mary Moebius, a UCLA assistant clinical professor who practices child psychiatry in Tarzana.

“If kids are teased and scapegoated too much,” she said, “they can become depressed, or they may adapt a wallflower or bully stance. They may act out by being mean and nasty to other kids because they feel bad about themselves. In extreme cases, it can lead to long-term--even lifelong--problems, such as withdrawal, social phobias or difficulty establishing relationships.”

The first--and most devastating--remarks children hear about their bodies often come not from the schoolyard, but from the household, according to Moebius. “The father or brother may be giving an overweight daughter a hard time, or the mother may be putting her on a diet,” she said.

“But parents don’t have to be objective about their kid’s appearance. If a daughter says, ‘My breasts are too big,’ or ‘My thighs are too fat,’ the mom should not agree with her and say, ‘Yes they are; let’s put you on a diet.’ ”

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Instead, she suggests that parents shift the conversation to the children’s positive attributes. “Talk about how strong they are or how gorgeous their eyes are,” she said. “Help kids focus on areas they excel in. When children express that they are feeling bad, they are really asking for comfort and verbal cuddling.”

This approach may be difficult for parents with specific concerns about their child’s appearance. Merri Casper, an Agoura parent, admits that she is more worried about her chubby 12-year-old daughter’s weight than the girl is. “It doesn’t seem to bother her; but it bothers me,” said Casper.

Her daughter, Lauren, is popular, athletic and utterly unself-conscious in a bathing suit. But Casper, who was overweight as a child, worries that the youngster will feel stigmatized as she matures.

“I remember how my family called me ‘pleasingly plump,’ ” she said, “and I hated it. We live in such a skinny-conscious world. I try not to nag, but I am afraid Lauren will not grow out of her weight problem. I want the best for her and I am concerned in a loving way.”

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In cases of childhood obesity, anorexia, or other conditions that can be remedied with medical help and counseling, experts suggest that parents seek advice from a physician or psychologist, rather than try to fix the problem on their own.

By allowing a professional to suggest treatment options or dietary modifications, parents can support their child without taking on the role of food cop or critic.

Of course, youngsters at the extreme ends of the weight spectrum aren’t the only ones who feel badly about their bodies. Kids who hit puberty several years before or after their peers--the 9-year-old girl who spills out of a B cup and the teen-age boy who still speaks in a falsetto--are also likely to feel awful. Those who believe their noses are too long or a birthmark too conspicuous may be equally anguished.

Older girls may be mortified over facial hair or flat chests, while their male classmates are distressed about their own smooth faces and noticeable breasts. (It’s fairly common for boys to develop breast tissue during puberty. While harmless and normal, the temporary condition, called gynecomastia, makes for misery in the locker room.)

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“The pressure to look like everyone else is overwhelming,” said Tarzana pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Norman Lavin, a clinical professor of pediatrics and endocrinology at UCLA.

“One mother came to see me because her daughter has a weight problem. She had the same kind of tears as if the girl had cancer. And the other day I saw a boy who was just this side of suicidal because his genitalia is smaller than his friends’.”

Childhood obesity, as well as accelerated or delayed sexual development, may be the result of an underlying medical problem, according to Lavin, but such situations are rare. “If a child’s growth curve changes suddenly--for example, if he was in the 50th percentile and suddenly drops to the 10th percentile--one should be concerned,” he said.

“The child should be evaluated by a physician to rule out a hormonal imbalance, tumor or chronic disease.”

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In the vast majority of cases, though, the children are simply early or late bloomers, or they are genetically programmed to look as they do--and they are perfectly normal, according to Tarzana pediatrician Dr. Nan Zaitlen.

“Most kids are growing just like they are supposed to,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You are the perfect size for you; you are on your own time clock.’ Someone will always be the shortest in the class; someone will always be the tallest; and some kids will always be heavier than others.”

If a child continues to be excessively distraught over a particular feature, cosmetic surgery may be recommended. “I often hear children and adolescents say, ‘When I am 16, I will have my nose fixed,”’ Goldstein said. “They have the idea that they are not stuck with an unacceptable body part, that it can be modified, and that is the way they are able to deal with it.”

But plastic surgery should not be regarded as a panacea for whatever is bothering a troubled youth. A better solution, Goldstein said, is to help the teen-ager build his or her self-image.

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“The teen-age years are the hardest time for kids in terms of being extremely sensitive,” she said. “That’s why it is really important for teen-agers to be aware of their personal strengths, to establish a positive self-concept--and to not accept the negative assessment of peers or others as necessarily valid or meaningful.”

While it is important to pay attention to children’s concerns about their appearance, experts say parents should not bring up or criticize their perceived defects.

“Kids interpret criticism as a pulling away of love,” Lavin said. “They believe if they were taller or thinner, their parents would love them more. Parents must reassure their children that they love them no matter what, and they can be whatever they want to be--whatever size they are.”

Making a Difference

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Children who believe they look different from their friends are likely to have a low self-image. Here are some ways that parents can bolster fragile young egos:

* Pay attention when your child expresses discomfort about his or her appearance. “Sit down, listen and be supportive,” said Tarzana pediatrician Dr. Nan Zaitlen. “Don’t dismiss the child by saying, ‘Oh, no, you’re fine.’ Children need to know they are cared about, loved and listened to.”

* Point out positive role models, such as entertainers, athletes, public figures or family friends who have similar physical characteristics as your child. “Give the child living proof that differences don’t have to preclude success and happiness,” said Van Nuys clinical psychologist Sondra Goldstein. “Many people use their differences to their advantage. Look at Danny DeVito, who is shorter than most men and is a superstar, or Janet Reno, who is very tall and also successful, dynamic and bright.”

* Pull out the old family album and show your kids your childhood pictures. As a parent, you are your child’s first and most important role model, and chances are, you suffered through--and overcame--the same insecurities and anxieties your child now faces. “In general,” Zaitlen said, “tall parents have tall kids, short parents have short kids, so reflect back to your experiences. Say, ‘I remember when I was worried about that.”

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* Encourage children to focus on their strengths, talents and positive attributes. “Teach them to develop self-soothing statements,” Goldstein said, “such as: ‘I may be the tallest, but I am also the best at handball. I may be overweight, but I am the best speller. I am kind. I am generous. I have a wonderful smile.’ ”

* Enlist the support of teachers to help your child’s classmates learn to empathize with and embrace differences in one another. Puppet shows, guest speakers or biographies of famous people who overcame adversity all help children learn about the wide range of “normal.” “Everyone has parts of themselves they wish they could change,” Goldstein said, “and learning about people who believed in themselves despite their differences is inspirational to all children.”


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