6 ways to build healthy body image in your kids

Helping your child to develop self-esteem and manage complicated media messages means celebrating all body types’including your own

Elementary school class outside

Source: Web exclusive, January 2011

Kids are like sponges’they soak up whatever we give them, whether we mean them to or not. That’s why when it comes to building healthy body image in children, parents have a vitally important role to play. Because if you’re obsessed with counting calories or dropping a dress size, you may be inadvertently passing those attitudes on to your kids. Instead, teach your kids to be healthy and to love their bodies.

Here are six ways to help your kids build a healthy body image:

1. Avoid criticizing your own body

It may sound simple, but the best way to build healthy attitudes is to model them. If you’re constantly complaining about your body, standing on the scale or making faces at yourself in the mirror, you’ll be sending your kids a powerful message. ‘It doesn’t even have to be verbal,’ explains Patricia Kelly, a psychotherapist and the co-founder of New Realities Eating Disorders Recovery Centre in Toronto. ‘It can be as simple as watching mom put on six outfits before she finds one that she doesn’t feel ugly in. How can you teach your child to be accepting of his or her own body if you don’t accept yours?’

2. Don’t obsess over food

‘A parent who obsessively counts calories will teach kids that their self-worth is measured by the scale,’ says Sarah Coulson, a registered dietitian in Toronto. ‘That stuff stays with kids.’ Instead of dieting, make sure you model healthy eating‘and that means ditching the ‘good food/bad food‘ mantras. Restricting certain foods, whether for yourself or your children, often makes them that much more desirable. Of course, obsessing about healthy food can be unhealthy, too. Instead, enjoy the pleasures of food as a family: eat meals together, eat the same food’no special ‘diet’ meals for anyone’and indulge in healthy moderation (don’t skip dessert, just have a smaller piece). Also, try to avoid forcing your children to eat when they aren’t hungry, as it can set up an unhealthy, emotional relationship to food later in life.

3. Don’t make a big deal about weight loss

When Rachel* was growing up, she knew she was carrying a little extra weight. It was reinforced, however, by her mother’s own struggle with the scale. ‘My mom was always talking about how fat she was,’ recalls Rachel. ‘But my body is similar to her body’in fact, I’m even heavier. So I learned by proxy that I’m fat, and therefore not desirable.’ When Rachel was 10, her mother lost some weight and kept it off by going to the gym nearly every day, finally proud of her body. ‘I always wanted to lose weight, too,’ says Rachel. When she did shed a few pounds as an adolescent, she was showered with positive reinforcement from her parents’but it disappeared when the weight came back. Rachel, who is nearly six feet tall and wears a size 16, now makes an effort not to congratulate people on weight loss. ‘If I think people look good, I try to tell them that, no matter what their weight is,’ she says.

4. Work on self-esteem

‘Focusing on changing your appearance is usually about trying to find a way to feel accepted,’ says Kelly. ‘Believing you can change your body is a lot easier than changing who you are. It’s a lot less threatening.’ She recommends that parents spend some time thinking about their own body attitudes and seek help if needed.

Learn to value yourself for more than how you look and do the same for your children.
‘It’s okay to say ‘you look beautiful’ or ‘you look handsome’ to your child,’ says Kelly, ‘but it’s also important to say things like ‘that was a really kind thing you did’ or ‘you played well in that volleyball game.” Be sure to praise your child’s many qualities, not just her appearance. At the same time, keep your criticisms to yourself when it comes to your child’s body.

5. Keep communication open

If your child tells you she thinks she looks fat, listen carefully. ‘Rather than immediately saying ‘No, you’re not!’ be curious about where that attitude comes from,’ says Kelly. ‘[Ask yourself], ‘What happened? Why does she feel fat all of a sudden?” Listen for what’s going on under the surface and try to address those issues. Is she stressed out? Is she unhappy?

This is also a good way to help your child better manage the world of media, where having a perfect body often seems like priority number one. Teach your kids to be critical thinkers and help them understand, for example, that many of the images they see in magazines have been heavily airbrushed and are not realistic.

6. Celebrate all bodies

At the end of the day, you are a role model for your children. Let them see that healthy, happy bodies come in all sizes. Make sure your entire family stays physically active and eats well, but don’t make weight loss the ultimate goal. Instead, praise the benefits of being strong and fit, no matter what shape a body is. Don’t dwell on how a body looks, but focus on how it feels inside. And celebrate your own body, too! Don’t like your thighs? Rather than talking about how big you think they are, rejoice in their strength. Hate your nose? Find pleasure in having a distinctive profile. The more you can come to enjoy your own body, the sooner you’ll be able to start building body confidence in your kids.

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