Have you ever watched a preschooler discover herself in the mirror? Fascinated, she takes in her reflection and giggles. She might make a funny face, sway her hips, twirl, or strike a pose. Her body is a source of joy and delight.
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As early as age 6, that can change.
According to Aviva Braun, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in treating body image and eating problems, experts are finding eating disorders in children ages 6-8. Though girls are statistically more likely to develop an eating disorder, boys are at risk as well.
We all want our kids to grow up healthy, strong, and comfortable in their bodies. So, how do we prevent problems for our children and build their body confidence? Here’s what the experts had to say.
What is healthy body image?
Many moms struggle with body image, so it’s important to clarify what it means to have a healthy one. Dr. Fran Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist based in Beverly Hills, defines healthy body image as accepting one’s body as it is – perceived “flaws” and all.
Moms are constantly receiving messages from social media, the media, and elsewhere about what our bodies – and our children’s bodies – should look like. While it’s true that society and culture often reward certain body types over others, it’s not just. And if that’s ever going to change, we must teach our children the truth: bodies come in all shapes and sizes and colors. No body type is better than another; every body is worthy of love and respect.
Including our own.
Healthy body image also includes an awareness that our bodies are only one aspect of personhood, Walfish adds. “Ideally, what I would want is for [children and parents] to have an integration of body, mind, and soul,” she said. “[They] recognize, ‘I like who I am, I wouldn’t trade it … to be in someone else’s skin.’”
Assess your own body image
Moms eager to promote healthy body image should first consider their feelings about their own bodies, Walfish said. Take a good look in the mirror. What do you think when you look at your body? Do you feel happy or sad? Do you begin to praise or pick apart your shape?
Next, “Take a painful, honest look within, and ask [yourself] about the kind of messages [you] were given related to food, body image, weight, and desirability as a love object by [your] parents,” she suggests.
Once you discover the answers to these questions, notice without judgment how these things influence your parenting.
When “you hear your voice talking to your child or children and when you recognize yourself giving that same message you received to your kids, you have to shrug your shoulders and go, ‘Oops, there I go again,’” she said.
Set a positive example
When you look in the mirror or step on the scale, try to avoid audibly critiquing your body. “If you’re saying, ‘I’m fat or ugly,’ your kids are aware of that,” Braun said. Very young children may not even understand know what “fat” means, she added.
Instead, verbalize something you like about yourself. What would 4-year-old you delight in? Whether you’re stepping out in a dress, your everyday wear, or a swimsuit, can you cultivate a little more joy for the body you live in?
Inevitably children will encounter negative messages about their bodies, but Braun believes that “we can really be the buffer for young kids [by talking] about our bodies in ways that are positive. … Moms have a tremendous influence.”
Praise bodies for their strength, not beauty
Not only do moms need to abstain from “fat talk” about themselves and other people, but they also ought to do the same with their children. Comments about size, such as “You look really skinny,” should be avoided. Braun also discourages the use of the word beautiful, which, if used too often, can make girls believe their worth depends on their looks.
Rather than focus on appearance, lean into praising your children for their values and virtues as well as what their bodies can do. Better compliments include: “What a cool outfit – you are so creative!” or “You’re sharing with a good brother; you are a good friend to him,” and “Wow, you climbed up the ladder by yourself. Your muscles are so strong!”
Promote intuitive eating and “growing foods”
Restriction and control over food in the early years from parents can adversely affect a child’s eating habits as they grow older, Walfish notes, adding that “rigidity is not healthy.” She and Braun advise that, ideally, children see foods as neutral rather than falling into categories like virtuous or sinful. In practice, this might mean your child sees both broccoli and cookies as fuel for her body, even if she prefers the taste of one to the other.
Power struggles with sweets should be avoided, Walfish notes. “If your kid gets bent or stuck on ‘I want treats all day long’ … it’s a mistake for the parent to sit down hard and say no to sweets,” she said. “It’s much better to do what the research shows. And the research shows. If you allow your kid free reign and he can have as much sweets as [he] wants, the kid will eventually eat sweets for days on end. Then, his body wants protein, and he’ll eventually eat protein.”
But how do we teach kids about nutrition without labeling foods as “good” or “bad”?
Braun uses the phrase “growing foods” to teach her two daughters about nutrient-rich foods. Walfish suggests making whole food (rather than processed) snacks and meals more readily accessible to children and savoring treats together rather than feeling guilty about eating them.
Additionally, moms should encourage good hydration and intuitive eating, which is eating to satisfy hunger. “When we are babies and we are full, we stop eating,” Braun said. “In our society, things look enticing and we think we need to eat more than we do.” Talk to your kids about what it feels like to eat to a level of comfortable fullness and practice it together.
Encourage exercise for health, not punishment
Movement, whether it’s kicking a soccer ball, swimming, or holding tree pose in yoga class, helps children understand and appreciate the power of their bodies. Regular exercise has been proven to help children and adults alike relieve stress and grow in body confidence.
Meghan Stegemann, founder of Kids Need Yoga, said she developed her program for young students in 2016 to help them address the stressors of childhood. In her classes, she found kids comparing their bodies with others. “I like to remind my students that their bodies can do amazing unique things, but it may not look like someone’s else’s, and that’s OK,” she said. This is a great phrase you can try with your own children when they engage in group activities.
Whatever type of exercise your child participates in, frame it as an opportunity to care for your body. Select activities your children find fun, and don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of different options. Better yet, get involved and move together.
Remember: Teaching healthy body image starts with cultivating love for the bodies we have, not the bodies we wish we had. By focusing on what our children’s bodies can do and fueling them for growth, we can counteract some of the negative messages kids receive about bodies related to appearance. Our bodies are just one aspect of our personhood, and the way we treat ours influences how our children see and treat their own.