Building a Healthy Body Image in Children

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Our own opinions toward our bodies form at a very young age. Research suggests that children as young as 3 years old can have body image issues. With that knowledge, how can we as parents, caregivers, aunts/uncles, etc, help our children develop a positive body image?

Weight Neutrality:

At home, it is best to stay neutral in your talk of weight. Avoid mentioning how much they weigh/you weigh, of BMI, how much you wish they weighed/you weighed, or using the words ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’. Comments about body should be on the function and what we can do with our bodies not as much on the outward appearance.

  • Isn’t it wonderful how we can walk and jump?
  • Don’t you just love to sing?
  • It’s great to use my legs and play tag with you!
Food Neutrality:

Avoid talk of calories, 'good' or 'bad', healthy or unhealthy foods. We have amazing bodies that process all foods and all foods can be utilized by our body. Food is comprised of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all necessary for a balanced diet. No one food can make you lose weight or make you healthier. Our health is impacted by the way we feed and treat our body over the long term. Therefore, we know eating one kale salad for dinner doesn't make you healthy and eating one cupcake for snack doesn't instantly make you unhealthy. The point of food neutrality is to remove the power we have given certain foods. Overeating or bingeing on food is a body response to deprivation (whether that is physical restriction of specific foods/food groups or mental restriction, like telling ourselves certain foods are off limits). The more we try to micromanage a child's eating, the more they will consciously or subconsciously want to rebel with that specific food.

Remind Yourself and Your Child:
  • To care for ourselves and our bodies, it is best to eat 3 meals and 2 snacks per day, with 3 food groups present at each meal
  • Our bodies function best when we don't go longer than 3-4 hours between meal/snack
  • To notice/learn the body sensations. Your stomach growling means your body needs food. Practice eating mindfully and slowly so you can feel your fullness and stop when you’re satisfied
  • It's not about what we should avoid or take out of our diet, but how we can include even more variety
Helpful Language When Child is Upset:
  • If you notice your child is upset and seems to be using food to cope, try saying: “[Child’s name], you seem upset. Would you like to talk about it? I am always here to listen if you need me.” It’s important that food is left out of the conversation altogether. When shame is involved in emotional eating, it may perpetuate the behavior. Emotional eating is not bad, in fact it is a natural human response, however, it is not beneficial when it is the only coping skill being used.
  • When your child seems to be having a negative body image day, continue to remind them how much they mean to you. Insist you trust their body and they should too. Try saying, “I am so grateful for...(list something not size or shape related, ex: your beautiful voice, that we can walk to the park together, your creativity, how you make me laugh)

Body image is a big part of every child’s self-esteem. If children don’t like the way they look or are dissatisfied with their bodies, their self-esteem will suffer. This is why it is so important that we embrace their bodies and build them up, helping them make good choices that will follow them long term.



Book resources to aid in additional support:

Books for Parents/Caregivers: Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size (both are also available in audio version)

Books for adolescents: Beautiful You, The Body Image Workbook for Teens, Intuitive Eating Workbook for Teens

Books for children: Amanda's Big Dream, Brontorina, Shapesville

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