How Parent Behavior Influences Children’s Body Image, Health
How often do you sneer at your own reflection or mutter a self-deprecating comment because you feel unhappy with the way you look?
Perhaps tough to admit, many of us are guilty of being unkind to ourselves.
You may vow never to wear clothing that accentuates the features you deem unacceptable, or make incessant remarks about dimples, flab or extra pounds.
Nicknames have been given to these unfavorable body parts: spare tire, love handles and muffin top to name a few.
Parents must learn to quell that persnickety voice in their head that their body isn’t good enough.
Granted, we all have physical attributes we don’t love, and it’s okay to be a little modest.
But how would like explaining to your child what a muffin top is next time you’re in a fitting room shopping for apparel?
And after they ask, you all know what’s next. Kids emulate.
So when do people start to pick apart what they look like?
Children as young as kindergarten-age experience body dissatisfaction.
This self-criticism doesn’t happen on its own. And you guessed it, learned behavior is the culprit.
Parent Attitudes Influence Kids
How parents talk about food, their own bodies and exercise can have long-lasting implications for children and teens.
Mary Lynn Duvall, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist serving the Washington, D.C. metro area, knows this firsthand through her work with children, teens and adults.
She values the role parents can play in helping their children adopt a positive self-concept, and form habits that lead to a healthy lifestyle.
“I think the best thing parents can do is set a good example. Eat a variety of foods, be comfortably active and don’t complain about your body,” Duvall said in an interview.
“Not picking apart other people’s bodies or criticizing your own body are critical tools to help raise kids with a healthy body image.”
Duvall teaches people how to fuel their body with proper nutrition and understand food science in practical terms.
To keep things positive, avoid discussion of weight, caloric-intake and obsessing over what size you wear, she advises.
Focusing on what the human body is capable of instead of what it looks like is a much healthier route.
Duvall is very prudent when working with families who want their child to lose weight. She emphasizes that bodies have their limitations.
“Celebrate and understand physical differences,” Duvall said.
“Particularly, if you have a child that is genetically inclined to be larger, it is really important that you accept that and make the child feel loved, accepted and beautiful,” Duvall offered. “Help them find clothes that are comfortable and flattering.”
As a society, we are inundated with programs, products and diet guidelines that laud a healthier way of life or a more desirable physical appearance.
And what about all the emphasis on organic foods, non-GMO’s and other food trends like the Paleo Diet?
These pressures are palpable and certainly don’t go unnoticed by today’s youth.
So when these ubiquitous messages about body image and fitness reach kids, are they falling on deaf ears? Certainly not.
One study found that nearly 40% of girls had dieted in the past year by age 14.
That’s kids who are depriving themselves of certain foods and restricting their diet.
“A lot of things that are touted as being healthy are really problematic. I encourage moms and dads not to call foods bad or good; or healthy or not healthy, Duvall said. “That kind of language is at the crux of the eating disorder mentality and dieting mentality. I encourage them to share that all foods are part of a balanced diet.”
The National Eating Disorders Association encourages parents to be aware of how they can inadvertently impose value judgements based on a child’s weight, shape or size.
Adolescence is often the time of onset for a person to develop an eating disorder, and the condition is most prevalent in young people.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders reports that 95% of those with eating disorders are between 12 and 25 years old.
Eating Disorders are multifaceted in that they can be triggered by a variety of influences. There are a host of biological, emotional, psychological, environmental and social factors that play a role.
Size and weight prejudices, striving for an ideal body, and emphasis on dieting are all risk factors for eating disorders that parents can help to control.
When Intervention is Needed
So when should parents intervene?
Kids who scour nutritional labels, skip meals and express body dissatisfaction may be exhibiting signs of disordered eating. When such behaviors become a pattern, parent intervention is critical.
Negative comments can be the first major red flag.
“Most often kids are going to start complaining about their bodies. They may say: I’m getting fat. I need lose weight, or my stomach is not flat,” Duvall added.
At times, parents may try to step in and come up with a weight loss plan which can reaffirm a child’s negative self-concept, Duvall shared.
Instead of a diet-plan, Duvall suggests eating dinner as a family. “That’s one of the most important facts: families that eat meals together have much lower incidence of eating disorders,” Duvall added.
If parents see that their child is exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, reaching out to a mental health counselor, pediatrician, and registered dietitian nutritionist are pivotal steps to provide appropriate intervention and treatment.
Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle
Physical activity can be a slippery slope as well. While exercise can offer a host of benefits to families, you wouldn’t want to make your kid your workout buddy.
“I think it’s fine for a parent to be active with their child, “Duvall said. “I think that approaching [the activity] as a fitness routine has the potential to be problematic.”
Exercise can be a great way to connect with your child. Take busy mom and teacher, Carrie Guild, who includes her six-year-old daughter, Lexi, in her physical activity routine.
Sometimes Lexi will ride her bike while her mom and dad are out on a run-walk or jump around while Guild does a workout. The outcome is two-fold.
“It strengthens our relationship because we are together and doing something that is meaningful versus just sitting in front of the television or computer,” Guild shared. “It allows her to see that staying active and healthy are part of the lifestyle we enjoy and we want her to have the same belief in that.”
By starting early with her daughter, Guild has served as a positive role model for her child growing up in a culture that is hyper-focused on health and fitness, but also lives in a world where more than one third of children and adolescents are overweight.
The practice in the Guild household is positive as there’s no discussion of calories burned or comments about wanting to lose weight.
When a parent models healthy behaviors, the kids pick up on it.
So what are you going to do promote a positive body image and active lifestyle in your household?