When your child comes to you for the first time and tells you they don’t like their body, what would you do? Will you try to help them to change their body? Will you support them in changing their body? Will you blow them off by telling them they are fine? Will you clam up and freeze because you have no idea what to do?
In our diet culture today, it’s no wonder our children are fearful of being in a less than perfect body. Everywhere they turn they are hearing fat phobic messages about bodies. As soon as they enter school they will get messages about healthy and unhealthy foods. They will learn social skills meant to teach them a social filter, but in reality they are being taught that not all bodies are acceptable bodies.
The subliminal messages become their beliefs; I can give you an example. This year my daughter was part of a social skills class that is designed to teach them to not speak without thinking. In this book, a child insults another person. The response to every dig was, “Why would you say such a thing…now apologize.” In one particular lesson a child asked a mom when her baby was due, the woman responded by saying the she was not pregnant. The child’s response, “Then why are you so fat.” Only to be met with the shame of, “Why would you say such a thing, now apologize.” The problem with this lesson is that it was disguised by a fat phobic message. It taught children that living in a larger body is wrong.
Spoiler Alert: It is okay to live in a larger body! What about the child in that class that might be in a larger body – they just learned their body is wrong. Even children in smaller bodies learn larger bodies are wrong.
Another example. You are driving in the car – the newest “fat burner” commercial comes on. Your child is watching their television show and the advertisement for the newest diet flashes on the screen. The magazines at the check out blast you with weight loss talk, Fat Burner Foods, How to Lose 10 Pounds FAST, How (insert celebrity) got back her beach body. You get the idea.
Just having a child in this society monetizing (60 billion dollars to be exact) on promising you weight loss puts your child at higher risk for body dissatisfaction. Your children are defiantly not immune to these messages.
As a good parent, you will strive to make your children’s lives easier and better than you had it. This sometimes means trying to solve their problems for them. You will want to make everything better for them. However, this might mean that you collude with their body image issues.
If your child comes to you and tells you they don’t like their body, experiment with a few things:
Ask LOTS of Questions and Get Curious
It is always a good idea to understand and be curious where the thoughts are coming from. Keep asking more questions and listen to their thoughts and concerns. I always tell the parents I work with, when uncomfortable questions come up, keep asking why. Getting to the bottom of it is half the battle. Here are a few examples of questions you might ask:
- Tell me, why do you not like your belly (arms, legs, etc)?
- What makes you think that your belly should be a different size?
- If you were to change the size of your belly, arm, legs – what would change for you?
- What do you think about your changing your body? (this is especially good for you children going through puberty – I mean you remember when hair was growing in new places and your body was changing, right?)
Refrain from Colluding with the Body Image Issues
If you are a well meaning parents you will want to help “solve” your child’s body image issues. However, as I talked about it in the first point – get to the route of your child’s issues around their body. There may be bigger issues to why they are feeling uncomfortable in their body. If you offer a solution to their body image issues such as, “Okay, you need to exercise more then” or “Well, then stop eating all the junk food” then you are validating their concerns as true.
What your child will hear is, “I feel uncomfortable in my body and since (insert parent name) told me to exercise more or eat less junk, there really must be something wrong with my body.”
You never want your children to think there is anything wrong with their body. A child that specifically hears their body is wrong feels flawed in every way – not smart, not physically capable, and not worthy.
Look Within Your Environment
What are the messages you have at home and in the family?
Are you trying to change your body?
As a parent, if you are trying to diet and change your body this is sending a message to your child that the size and shape of your body does matter. Children of parents that diet are more likely to diet themselves. Since we know that ~95% of diets fail and a person is more likely to regain the weight within five years, it does more harm than good.
Davison and Birch, found that 9-year-old girls were more likely to express negative attitudes about people in larger sized bodies when they perceived their mother to be concerned about her own and her child’s weight.
Are you constantly commenting on or about other peoples body?
Listen around, do you notice there is constantly body talk around your children. Sometimes well meaning adults will compliment each other on their weight loss. Maybe talk negatively about how someones body has changed. Your children are listening. This type of exposure will increase the likelihood your child can attach the importance of what their body looks like.
Seek out an Expert If It Doesn’t Get Better
We know from research that children by the age of 6 years old (YES SIX years old) have a desire for thinness in females and muscularity in males. In my experience working with eating disorder clients this rings very true for many of my clients. This means there should be no shame if your child is struggling with their body image. While some body image issues may not escalate into more, it may be important to get help from a qualified professional to help them sort through where these body image issues might be coming from.
Find a professional that can help look for the underlying issues around the body image, not just put a bandaid on the problem, (i.e. teach them to change their body). It is essential.
Keep in mind – an increased weight concern by ages 5-7 years old predicts an increase in dietary restraints by 9 years old. This is why getting to the underlying issues will be so beneficial for your children.
Davison KK, Birch LL. Predictors of fat stereotypes among 9-year-old girls and their parents. Obes Res. 2004;12:86–94. doi: 10.1038/oby.2004.12.
Paxton, SJ, Spiel, EC. Relationships between body size attitudes and body image of 4-year-old boys and girls, and attitudes of their fathers and mothers. J of Eat Disord. 2015;3:16.