How to teach your child to love her body

July 20, 2017 | by Erin Terada, PsyD, CEDS

It’s swimsuit season — a time when bodies are on display, and when body image issues are more noticeable.

Nearly half of the nation’s girls are unhappy with their bodies. The National Eating Disorders Association says by age 6, girls start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. By the time they hit college, nearly all will be dieting and more than 10 percent will have life-threatening eating disorders.

Kids begin forming perceptions of their bodies in early childhood, especially when puberty hits. At this time, girls and boys become more aware of their appearance. They are exposed to thin body images as the “ideal” in the media, and they receive similar feedback about how they look from peers, family members and others.

All of these factors can lead to body insecurities, most commonly in girls but many boys also suffer as well. Symptoms of an unhealthy or negative body image may include:

  • Obsessive self scrutiny in the mirror
  • Disparaging thoughts or comments about her body
  • Frequent comparison of her own shape and size to other people
  • Envy over a friend’s body, or the body of someone in the media

When kids become concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat, it can have dangerous consequences on health and well-being. While eating disorders certainly have a genetic basis, research suggests body image concerns and eating disorders often go hand in hand. In fact, body dissatisfaction is one of the most important risk factors for an eating disorder.

Fortunately, parents can help promote a healthy body image in their kids. Use these tips to teach your child to feel good about her body:

  • Be a positive role model. Your child is watching you closely. Be positive about your own body. Don’t fret or complain about your body or your weight in front of your kid, or she will start to do the same. Moms who  struggle with their own negative body image should get help for themselves.
  • Watch what you say. Don’t use words such as "fat,” “thin” or “diet.” Discourage family and friends from joking about weight, singling out a child based on his/her weight, or using hurtful nicknames.
  • Teach healthy eating. Help your child develop a healthy relationship with food and eating. Talk about how her body needs food to grow strong. Don’t place junk food completely off-limits, just have less healthy foods in smaller quantities and less often. Avoid fad diets, which often lead to a lifetime of body image issues.
  • Involve your kids in preparing food. Have your kids be part of grocery shopping and food preparation. After all, cooking can be more fun with kids. Let your child choose what she wants to eat among healthy options.
  • Help your child recognize when she’s hungry and full. Talk about how you eat when your hungry and stop when full. Allow your child to decide how much to eat and let her say when she’s full.
  • Explain the effects of puberty.Talk about how body changes are a perfectly normal part of growing up. Answer your child’s questions about puberty honestly, and don’t always wait for him/her to initiate the talk.
  • Talk about self-image. Talk about how everyone comes in different shapes and sizes, and what matters is being healthy and feeling good about yourself. Ask your child what she likes about herself and talk about what you like about her too.
  • Discuss negative messages. Talk about how the media sends harmful messages about what body types are attractive. Call out the unhealthy messages when you see them. Encourage her to question what she sees and hears.
  • Monitor her TV and internet use. Set rules for your kids’ use of social media and TV. Remember, teens use social media to share pictures and receive feedback, and judgments from peers can hinder self-esteem.
  • Encourage physical activity. Physical activities, such as sports, dancing and martial arts, can help promote a positive body image. Just be aware of coaches who may pressure your child to diet.
  • Praise her inner attributes. Focus on your child’s unique talents and inner attributes so she learns to value who she is and what she does, rather than how she looks. Praise her efforts and skills. Expose her to inspiring people who are famous for their achievements, not their appearance.

Above all, let your child know that weight and body size and shape aren’t the most important things about someone. All bodies are different; what matters most is being healthy.

If your child is struggling with a negative body image, consider professional counseling. Additional support can give her the tools she needs to counter social pressure and feel good about her body — and ultimately herself.

If you’re concerned that your child may have an eating disorder, don’t ignore it. The sooner an eating disorder is treated, the easier the recovery. Know the signs of an eating disorder and when to get help.

Learn more about eating disorders and treatment at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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