How to Help Your Kids Feel Good About Their Bodies

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Recently a concerned mother wrote to columnist Carolyn Hax, worried and sad that her daughter had gained weight and was struggling to find clothes that fit her. She wanted to know what she could do to help her daughter lose weight and be more active.

Carolyn had some excellent advice for this mother:

“It appears to me there’s one thing you haven’t yet tried: accepting her weight.
As a crucial element of accepting her.
As a crucial element of her accepting herself.
As a crucial element of not layering an emotional struggle on top of physical and societal ones.
In your careful and well-intentioned way, you have drawn thinness as the only path to a good life.
So what is your daughter to think when her body won’t take her there? Her life is bad?”

Carolyn Hax reflects that for this mother, accepting her daughter’s weight is not only an element in helping her daughter, but a CRUCIAL element. She also understands where mom is coming from. In our weight obsessed society, in which there are very real and unjust consequences for being a person of size, it is difficult for parents to not become worried about their children when they seem to be outside what is considered “acceptable.”

Yet, in a world where five year old children are already concerned about the size of their bodies, and in and world where 80% of 10 year old girls have already gone on a diet, what else can parents do to help their children foster a loving and healthy relationship with their bodies? How do parents navigate this culture, their children’s individual sizes, and prevent disordered eating and negative body image?

Besides the crucial element of accepting your child's weight and size as Carolyn suggests here are my top 3 tips:

1. Be a good role model.

Kids are surprisingly adept at seeing and knowing how their parents relate to and perceive their own bodies. Many of my adult clients say they knew that it was not okay to accept their bodies after watching their parents pinch and poke themselves in the mirror saying “I’ve got to lose weight,” or trying yet another Atkins or Weight Watchers diet. Children, who often see their parents as the most wonderful people in the world, reflect that if even their incredible parents hate their bodies, how can they possibly love theirs?

You can be a good role model by accepting your own weight and size, here and now. Doing so sends the message that all bodies are good bodies and your child is much more likely to relax into theirs. You can refuse to diet, eat what you crave and enjoy your food, and you can move your body (if you wish) in a way that is enjoyable and comfortable for you.

2. Avoid making comments about your child’s body or other people’s bodies.

As you know, being a parent often means having difficult conversations with your children. Discussing how your child feels about their body, if your kiddo WANTS to talk about it, can be powerful and important. You have the opportunity to talk about how culture shapes our view of our bodies, how your child’s body can be trusted, and you can help your child process hurtful or confusing comments about theirs or other people’s bodies.

But, it is important to be cautious about any comments you make about your child’s body. Remember, children are incredibly perceptive. There’s no need to point out weight gain, tell your child to suck in their stomachs, or encourage activity in order to “help” your kiddo change their bodies. Doing so reinforces the notion that your child’s body needs to change, and is therefore unacceptable as it currently is.

It’s also important to avoid making any comments about other people’s bodies. It’s really none of your business if someone’s body has changed or what clothes they decide to wear. And in order to reinforce body positivity and acceptance for your child, they need to know that all bodies are acceptable and worthy of respect. Making comments about others reinforces the exact opposite.

 3. Encourage intuitive eating and joyful movement.

Remember when your child was a baby? They knew exactly how much milk to drink. They didn’t have to think about food, what was “healthy” or when to stop eating. The lovely thing is that all of us have innate wisdom about how much to eat and what to eat. Stock your pantry with all types of foods, including ones that may seem “unhealthy” to you. Doing so sends your child the message that their body can be trusted, and greatly diminishes feelings of deprivation that lead to bingeing, sneaking food, or guilt/shame after eating. Allow your child to eat when they are hungry, and continue to feed them until they say they are full and satisfied.

In addition, what activities sound fun to your child? Is a short walk fun? A bike ride together? Shooting hoops in the driveway? Participate with your child in moving their body that is not about losing weight, but rather about enjoying their bodies and moving them in a way that feels good. And if your child is not that into exercise, don’t sweat it (no pun intended)! Remember that your children have innate and intuitive wisdom that can guide their activity levels.

Being a parent is difficult work! Knowing what to say and when to say it is hard enough as it is. Remember to be gentle with yourself. There's no need to be perfect.  For more resources on helping your child develop a kind and healthy relationship with food and their bodies, I encourage you to visit the Ellen Satter Institute, which has resources on how to feed children in a way that is intuitive and non-shaming.