The INSIDER Summary:
- Many people have fraught relationships with their bodies, and that can start at a young age.
- Parents can have a big impact on how kids see their body.
- By teaching healthy habits, accepting all bodies, and monitoring what you say about your own body, you can encourage your child to have a good relationship with theirs.
It’s no secret that people’s relationships with their bodies can be fraught and complicated. And that behavior can start at an early age. A study claimed that children as young as five have concerns about how their body looks, and 80% of 10-year-old girls have already been on a diet.
The scary statistics may motivate parents to try and prevent their child from forming unhealthy feelings about weight and body image. And although that can be tough to do, there are some ways you can steer your kids into a more positive way of viewing their bodies.
Monitor your language about your own body.
You are the first role model for your child, and if your toddler hears you bashing your belly rolls, they may pick up what you put down.
“These types of statements reveal our own discomfort with our bodies,” model and body positive activist Melinda Parrish told INSIDER. “What children learn from these types of statements is, ‘When I am fat or heavy, I’m bad,’ ‘I should dress to hide my body,’ and ‘I have to restrict my food in order to be ‘good enough.’ None of us want to teach our kids these beliefs.”
The first line of defense is watching what you say in front of them. Stop using language that focuses on the scale and weight loss, and talk about how your body feels. Get in touch with loving your own body first so you can stop this kind of talk from spreading to your little one. Teach them that not only do we all deserve to be cut a little slack, but that you love your body just as it is.
“We all have times when we judge ourselves too hard, but this is unhelpful,” nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and author Rebecca Scritchfield told INSIDER. “Our minds and bodies need love and compassion.”
Encourage healthy behaviors.
Part of loving your body means loving it enough to eat foods that nourish it and to exercise to strengthen it. That may mean emphasizing how good you feel after eating an apple instead of chips and framing exercise as a fun activity rather than a form of torture.
Once that becomes a chore, experts told INSIDER, children can begin to associate these habits with maintain a certain body type and as something negative, which has negative consequences.
“When parents discuss how they feel strong and are able to manage stress better when they exercise and fuel their bodies with healthy foods, they role model this to their children,” therapist and life coach Nicole Burgess told INSIDER. “It becomes a mindset in the family because parents behaviors and words are congruent with what they want to teach their children.”
Similarly, treating unhealthy foods as something off-limits or as something that they should feel bad about having is also counter-intuitive. Not only does it make them want it more, but it places a stigma on these foods that can make kids feel bad about eating them as they get older.
“We don’t restrict fun foods and desserts and candy,” child advocate and parent Tonya McKenzie told INSIDER. “We teach balance. You have to teach kids how to make choices and balance their healthy eating with their fun eating. Restricting anything will make them want it more.”
Don’t shame them.
Hand in hand with teaching healthy behaviors is avoiding language that shames your kid.
It’s probably a no-brainer, but don’t take pot shots at their body. Don’t point out when they may have put on a few pounds (little bodies are constantly changing, after all) and don’t use their body as a punchline. Don’t humiliate them if you see them if they may not be eating the healthiest dinner.
Instead, call out when you hear them mocking themselves or others for their bodies. Let them know that this kind of talk isn’t tolerated in your home.
“Fat is not bad. Having fat isn’t bad — in fact, fat has a helpful purpose, including keeping our organs and body safe. Being fat is not bad,” Scritchfield said. “Some people have more fat than others. Fat is not a word we use to hurt people, including ourselves.”
Help your child find activities that make them feel powerful.
Many people forget that exercise and physical activities can be amazing tools to get in touch with your body. Encourage your child to find an activity to get them moving and to help them see all of the amazing things their body can do.
“Not only is it important to talk to your children about the benefits of exercise, but making small efforts to take the stairs instead of elevators, parking farther away from the entrance to a building to get a few extra steps in, or doing a meditation, yoga, or workout routine together once in a while can help them learn how to strengthen their body and combat anxiety,” therapist Weena Cullins told INSIDER.
“Never back down from something because you don’t think someone with your body should be able to do it,” Parrish said.
Practice radical acceptance.
Teaching your child to love their body is important, but teaching them to realize that all bodies are worthy of love goes hand in hand with that.
“We can’t just tell kids to accept their bodies, we must teach them what acceptance means.” Nicole Cardoza, program lead for Mind Yeti – an app that teaches children to focus and be kind to themselves, told INSIDER.
Show them and tell them that all bodies, no matter how big or small, no matter what race or ethnicity, no matter if they’re able-bodied or not, are unique and powerful. Show them through example that all people should love their bodies as they are right now and that there is no standard definition of “pretty” or “right” when it comes to bodies.