Ways To Help Children Develop Healthy Body Image

1. Start young. Children are already developing prejudices towards others and criticizing their own bodies by the age of five.

2. Be a good role model! Children learn about body image from parents and other influential adults. Don’t diet or overexercise; focus on the positive about your body; compliment yourself and others: and don’t put too much importance on appearance.

3. Teach children the value of diversity, and the idea that we are each “different” not “better and worse.” In the same way you teach them to accept different races, religions, etc., teach your children to accept a variety of sizes and shapes.

4. Educate yourself. Don’t pass on misinformation. For example, a common myth is that fat is automatically unhealthy, and thin is healthier. In truth, people of any size who eat a nutritious, well-balanced meal plan and who get regular activity are healthier than those who don’t.

5. Help your child enjoy what his/her body can do, and not just how the body looks. Children have natural curiosity and enjoyment of new skills that can help them enjoy their bodies as useful rather than ornamental. Children who feel competent, strong, fast, coordinated, etc, are less critical of their bodies than children who don’t.

6. Allow children to enjoy food. Provide a wide range of foods so your child can find something he/she likes. You probably don’t prepare foods you don’t like, so don’t do that to them, if you can help it!

7. Don’t call your children nicknames related to body size, or tease them (even gently!) about body size. Many people who develop eating disorders recall being called “chubby” “tubby” “butterball” and the like, as children. Even when their bodies changed and grew, they still held onto that label and image of themselves.

8. Focus on qualities other than appearance that you really like and admire in your child. Sense of humor, honesty, ability to tell a story or keep a secret – these are all things that build healthy self-esteem and a broad sense of being a likeable person.

9. Prepare your child for puberty and the upcoming changes in body size. Parents often talk about issues related to sexual development, but forget to mention that changes in weight, height and shape are coming, too. Remind your child that these changes are normal and healthy.

10. Teach your child about the role of genetics. Just as eye and hair color are genetically determined, weight, height and shape are also largely influenced by our genes (as much as 85%!). Look at family photos and talk about what’s realistic and natural.

11. Help your child accept all their strengths and limitations. Don’t stress perfection, constant improvement, or doing your best. Not all children have the same academic, athletic or creative abilities, and that should be okay.

12. Be active with your kids, rather than sitting on the sidelines. They’ll enjoy activity more with you.

13. Consider starting a parent’s group to discuss these issues with your children’s friends’ parents. It can be hard to feel you’re fighting alone against culture and hard for your child to go against their peers. Work together to create a “subculture” of body image acceptance.

14. Make sure Dad is involved in all of this! Children are influenced in different but equally important ways by each parent. It’s not enough for the healthy messages to be coming from Mom only. Engaged, affirming fathers can really bolster a child’s self esteem, and be another source of support. Fathers are also the first model of male-female relationships for a daughter and can have a long lasting impact!

15. Change your strategies as your child grows. Younger children are easily and directly influenced and generally like to be taught; older children like to collaborate with you on ideas; and adolescents who are often very sensitive to “being told” benefit from a less instructional approach. Always ask kids to think about experiences of their own so they can apply what your teaching to their everyday lives.

16. Really educate yourself. You cannot believe how incredibly influential you are to your child – make sure you give them correct information. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know but I’ll try to find out.”

Here are some great places to start:

Big Fat Lies. Glenn Gasesser.

Self-Esteem Trap. Polly Young-Eisendrath

Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. Courtney. F. Martin

Dads and Daughters. Joe Kelly

Outsmarting the Mother-Daughter Food Trap. Debra Waterhouse

Things will be Different for My Daughter: A Practical Guide to Building Her Self-Esteem and Self-Reliance. Mindy Bingham and Sandy Stryker

All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype…And Celebrating Real Beauty. Audrey D. Brashich

Perk! The Story of A Teenager With Bulimia. Liza F. Hall

How I Look Journal. Nan Dellheim, Molly Dellheim

Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters & Food. Margo Maine.

Prepared by: Candy MacNeil, M.S.
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