Girls as young as elementary school age are showing signs of disordered eating, and many have a negative self-image when it comes to their bodies. Children as young as three pick up on cues from their parents about body image. When it comes to raising a child to have a healthy relationship with food and her own body, parents need to model positive behaviors.
I'm seeing a continual rise in unhealthy relationships between kids, their bodies, and food. Parents are asking me about how to prevent their daughters from developing problematic eating behaviors. And, while eating disorders have genetic components and are influenced by kids’ character traits and by peer groups and media exposure, parents can certainly help — or worsen — the situation.
There are concrete ways parents can help promote healthy eating and body image at home. Kids are smart and pick up on their parents’ relationship with their own bodies and with food.
If parents are counting calories, cleansing, dieting, and talking about what foods they need to avoid to fit into a pair of jeans or because bathing suit season is coming up, kids are aware of what’s going on. The impact can be harmful. Avoiding these topics should be as important as other inappropriate conversations you want to avoid in front of your children.
So how should you make sure your kids are healthy, without somehow encouraging disordered eating or body image disturbances? Here are six suggestions:
- Throw out your scale and stop weighing yourself. Your child sees everything you do and seeing you weigh yourself has a significant impact on her perception of weight and body.
- Limit her access to television, magazines, and other places where unrealistic images of how girls and women should look are often presented.
- Talk about foods with regard to how they can nourish her body rather than their effects on her weight. Focus on health, not on calories, fats, or carbohydrates.
- Encourage physical activity for the sake of health rather than weight control.
- Never judge your body in front of your child. Do not say negative things about your body or even glance in the mirror in a critical way.
- Focus on all of your child’s strengths outside of her body, but make it a point to tell her how beautiful she is.
Dr. Rosenfeld is the author of Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation's Fixation with Food and Weight.
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