With so much talk nowadays about food, diets, shape, and weight, it can be confusing as a parent to know how to help your child develop positive feelings about their body, no matter what size they are. Body image disturbances can begin as early as preschool, and can have lasting impacts. Why is it so important for children and teens to have a positive image of their body? Because young people with a positive body image are more self-confident in general and are less likely to develop eating disorders or weight-related problems such as obesity, or other emotional problems like anxiety or depression. While body image in children and teens is influenced by many different sources – including family, friends, and the media – parents play a pivotal role in helping to promote positive body image at an early age. Here are 8 things that you as a parent can do to help your child feel good about their body:
o Focus on the function of your child’s body instead of on its appearance
Help your child or teen connect with all the wonderful things their body does for them on a daily basis – their legs allow them to walk, run and jump; their hands allow them to write, draw or play an instrument, etc. By focusing on the body’s function, your children can develop an appreciation for their body that goes beyond appearance.
o Focus on your child or teen’s qualities rather than appearance
A lot of young girls (and boys too) are complimented on how pretty or cute they are. Repeatedly hearing these sorts of statements from parents, family and friends can make a child believe that their worth is tied to their appearance. As a parent, it’s important to emphasize and compliment your child on his or her strengths and qualities that go beyond appearance, such as their intelligence, kindness, humour, and creativity.
o Encourage your child to think critically about messages and images they see and hear in the media
Educate and have conversations with your child about the reality of images they see on TV, the internet, in movies, and magazines. Talk to them about photoshop, and how many images they see have been altered. Have frank discussions about our culture’s emphasis on thinness and having the “perfect body”.
o Have meals as a family
Research shows that children who eat meals with their family are less likely to develop body image issues and eating disorders. Family meals are also a great way to connect as a family.
o Be a positive role model
Take time to examine your attitudes and feelings about your own body. Your kids will learn from what you model for them. If you talk negatively about your body, your child will learn that it’s ok for them to have negative feelings about their own body. By modelling acceptance and appreciation for your own body, your child will follow suit.
o Place an emphasis on foods in terms of what they give the body vs. whether they are healthy
Most diets categorize foods as “good” or “bad”. “Bad” foods are to be avoided at all costs. However, this type of thinking can have serious consequences on eating behaviour because you create a situation in which you want that food even more. Teach your child about what different types of foods do for their body (i.e. carbohydrates provide energy; protein helps build muscle; fat helps insulate organs) rather than classifying food as good or bad (unless they have allergies). Help your children understand the importance of eating a balanced diet.
o Help your child find physical activities that they enjoy
Encourage your child to be active by exploring different physical activities with them. Physical activity will help your child develop an appreciation for his or her body.
o Have open and honest conversations with your child or teen about how they feel about their body
Imagine your child comes home from school one day and tells you “I’m fat”. A very typical and normal parental reaction is to reply “Oh honey, of course you’re not!” While the goal of this statement is to make the child feel better, it also shuts down the conversation. Try asking your child why they are saying they are fat. Ask them who or what gave them that idea, and then proceed to talk to your child about how he or she feels about their body.
Promoting positive body image starts at home, and at a young age. Talk openly and honestly with your child about their feelings related to their bodies, and in general. Educate your child about the changes their body goes through during puberty. By modelling healthy attitudes towards your own body and food, helping your child appreciate their body no matter what size they are, and encouraging physical activity, you are setting the stage for your child to be able to grow up with few or no body image issues.
Lea Thaler, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, obesity and body image. She works at the Eating Disorders Program at the Douglas University Institute, and is an Assistant Professor in the department of Psychiatry at McGill University. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Thaler does research examining the genetic basis of eating disorders, and on treatment outcome for eating disorders. She is currently on maternity leave and will return to work in March 2015.
Note to Readers from Dr. Stephanie:
Two highly recommended books for young children on the subject of developing a positive body image are Shapesville by Andy Mills and Becky Olson, and Your Body Is Awesome: Body Respect for Children by Sigrun Danielsdottir.
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