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Help Your Kids Develop A Positive Body Image: What Not To Say Or Do

May 29, 2023 11:58AM ● By Tanni Haas

Summer can be a difficult time for kids who have body image issues. With the nice weather comes lighter clothing which often exposes more of the body than in the cold winter months. There’s a lot of useful information on what parents can do to help their kids feel good about themselves in the summer, but are there things they should avoid saying or doing? After all, all kids deserve to fully enjoy themselves in the summer, whether they’re taking a dip in the pool or sun-tanning with friends. Here’s what the experts suggest:

Don’t Tell Your Kids They Need to Lose Weight

It’s not a good idea to tell your kids they need to lose weight. “When kids are labeled as fat, and when fat equates to bad,” says Dr. Haley Kranstuber Horstman, a well-known professor of family communication, “it sticks with them.” These labels can make kids feel ashamed and even unlovable, Dr. Horstman adds. Encourage your kids to be physically active and eat only what their bodies need. This will help them lose any excess weight naturally and make them feel better about themselves.

Don’t Discuss Your Own Need to Lose Weight

Refrain from discussing your own need to lose weight. “Children learn how they should think and feel about their own bodies from listening to the adults around them,” says Dr. Renee Engeln, a professor of psychology. “If you talk about your huge thighs, your latest weight loss diet or your punishing workouts,” says Dayle Hayes, a registered dietician, “your kids will pick up on these negative messages. They’ll begin to worry about the size of their thighs and think they should be dieting.” Dr. Engeln agrees: “If they hear adults engaging in negative body talk—always focusing on ‘problematic’ body areas—kids get the impression that bodies can never be good enough as they are.” Simply put: “Ditch the diet talk,” as Emily Lauren Dick, the author of Body Positive: A Guide To Loving Your Body, puts it. If you feel the need to lose weight, emphasize how important it is for you to stay healthy rather than focusing on weight loss.

Don’t Comment on Other People’s Bodies

You can also inadvertently impact your kids’ body image by making negative comments on other people’s bodies. When kids “hear adults disparage other people’s bodies,” Dr. Engeln says, “They learn to apply the same sort of criticism to themselves when they look in the mirror.” Even positive comments can be detrimental, such as when we say that so-and-so looks so much better now that they’ve lost all that weight. “Instead of commenting on how their current body looks compared to their past body, compliment their hard work, dedicated effort and resiliency,” suggest Drs. Sasha Ulrich and Deidre Paulson, family physician and clinical psychologist, respectively.

Don’t Encourage Your Kids to Nibble

Your kids’ body image is also influenced by how you talk about food and eating. Be careful about encouraging your kids to nibble. Dr. Horstman defines a nibbler as “the person at the party who eats one carrot stick, only to be dipped lightly in fat-free dressing and claims that they’re full—the fullest they’ve ever been, in fact." This type of “restrictive eating,” as Dr. Horstman refers to it, is problematic because your kids will feel bad about themselves, and they won’t be satisfied and just end up making up for their hunger at the next meal. If your kids are hungry in between meals, offer them a nutritious snack as a good and healthy option.

Don’t Pressure Your Kids to Only Eat Certain Foods

You shouldn’t suggest to your kids that they should only eat certain “good” foods and avoid all “bad” foods. “The food you restrict or place rigid limits around,” says Sumner Brooks, a registered dietician, “are very likely to become the most desired foods, and it gives these foods a lot of power as ‘special’ or ‘forbidden.’ The result? Kids may choose to eat more of these foods when you’re not around, hide or sneak them or learn to feel bad about themselves for even wanting them.” More generally, Ms. Sumner says, “Precious family time can be overtaken by arguments about a child’s eating, instead of meals being about positive connection and chatting about the day.”

Instead of labeling food as good or bad, let kids “know that certain choices are better for growing, strength and concentration,” says Diana Chillo-Havercamp, a licensed clinical social worker with expertise in children. Dr. Angela Celia Doyle, a clinical psychologist, agrees. She suggests that parents teach their kids “that all food consists of varying levels of nutrition and calories.”

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