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How to Parent Healthy Body Image and Why it Matters

Eight-year-old Malika’s mom bought her an adorable swimsuit for summer. She gifted the suit to Malika back in the spring in a size that was already snug, hoping that Malika might shed some weight and fit into the piece once the warmer months rolled around.

Liam, age 11, is a happy grade-schooler who enjoys playing video games and spending time with his family and friends. Liam’s parents are concerned about his weight – he’s always been pretty high on the charts, and they’re worried that with middle school around the corner, he could be bullied for his size. So, they’ve started bringing him to the gym with them, getting him to log treadmill time and serving him a low-carb diet at home.

Kara is 14 and in the throes of puberty. Having just packed on significant weight, she’s upset about her changing body. Her mother, sensitive to Kara’s concerns because she, too, struggles with her weight, invited her daughter to join her at her weekly Weight Watchers meetings.

These three scenarios, which might sound far-fetched to some, are becoming more commonplace in today’s American families. Parents, concerned about the obesity crisis, weight stigma, and their children’s health and well-being are taking the reins in an attempt to control their children’s weight. The downside? While these measures are sometimes well-intentioned – most parents want their children to be happy and healthy, to escape bullies’ taunts, and to have access to everything they want – the efforts often backfire, ending up creating more of a problem with food and weight for kids.

We live in world that doesn’t treat bigger bodies with sufficient respect. In fact, a 2008 study out of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University found that weight discrimination increased by 66 percent during a 10-year period. No parents want their kids to be singled out based on weight.

The study proved an important point – labeling someone fat doesn’t make her skinny – and in fact, it can do the opposite.-Stacey Rosenfeld

But interestingly, efforts to intervene with regard to children’s weight often backfire. Recent research out of UCLA, published in JAMA Pediatrics found that girls who are told by parent, other family members, friends, or those at school that they are too fat at age 10 are more likely to be obese by the time they are 19. The study proved an important point – labeling someone fat doesn’t make her skinny – and in fact, it can do the opposite.

And even if parental interventions don’t result in weight gain over time, measures such as the ones that Malika’s, Liam’s, and Kara’s parents implement can contribute to disordered eating and body image concerns. While enough research exists to show that parents don’t cause eating disorders, how parents relate to kids around food and their bodies can have helpful or harmful effects.

So, what should parents do, when we all know is that being overweight isn’t good for our children’s health? In a separate study conducted by one of the same UCLA psychologists and her colleagues, the researchers conducted analyses on 21 long-term studies on weight loss and health and found no relationship between weight loss and health improvements. That means that people who lost weight didn’t experience any health benefits. Many other studies offer similar conclusions. All those dictates to diet and lose weight for one’s health are missing the point.

Despite this finding, parents can still promote health and wellness in the home. The trick is to focus on health behaviors, rather than on body weight or shape. Behaviors are more controllable than bodies and ultimately, more tied to health consequences. Focusing on health behaviors above body size can also protect against body image disturbances. Still, behaviors should be addressed in a moderate way, promoting flexibility and acceptance.

Here are some tips for helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food and his body:

  • Focus on health, not weight, at home. Have conversations with your child about how to be healthy versus how to achieve a certain weight or size.
  • Serve a variety of foods, and include all foods in moderation. The more certain foods are restricted, the more they become the “forbidden fruit.” Discourage dieting/restrictive eating and food rules (good vs. bad foods) for this reason. At the same time, stress the importance of eating a balance of nutrients throughout the week.
  • Encourage physical activity, but not exercise, per se. If kids enjoy competition and group activities, sign them up for sports. Plan family outings that are physical – riding bikes, hiking, swimming together – fitness should be enjoyable above all else.
  • Be open to conversations with your child about body image. Provide education about the breadth of different types of bodies and how body diversity is limited in media representations. Encourage your child to think about what she likes about her body, how her body is unique, and how it serves her in her life.
  • Be mindful of your own relationship with your body and the impact that this can have on your kids. Parents sometimes don’t realize that when they’re dieting, compulsively exercising, or weighing themselves, kids learn to model these behaviors. If your child is picking up on any of your body image behaviors, now may be the time to get some professional help yourself.
  • If your child is being targeted for her weight, get active. Meet with school administrators and push for zero tolerance for bullying based on size.
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