Sadly, research shows increasing evidence that dieting begins in childhood, even before the onset of puberty.
Dieting, weight concerns, and body dissatisfaction have all been reported in children as young as age 7 to 9 years old, with approximately 40% of elementary school-aged girls reporting they’ve tried to diet to lose weight.
Children who diet are at risk for developing an eating disorder.
These statistics are harrowing and highlight the importance of taking deliberate steps to counter the messages our children will get from diet culture.
While these can seem like an impossible task, given all the ways children will be exposed to diet culture throughout their lives, there are many proactive steps we can take in our own homes.
As I like to say, never underestimate parent power, or the abilities and opportunities parents have to empower their children against diet culture.
Most of us have been targets of diet culture ourselves, and now in raising our own children, we can end the legacy of diet culture – preventing it from entering another generation.
So how can we do this exactly when it seems like so much is against us and our kids?
One powerful step you can take is to practice unconditional acceptance of your children’s bodies. Avoid making any comments about your child’s body, size or weight.
Challenge the arbitrary body standards that diet culture perpetuates and celebrate all bodies.
In a culture that idolizes thinness and weight loss, be intentional about showing your child body diversity – that all bodies are worthy of acceptance, respect and love – theirs AND yours, too.
This can help them learn their worth and value aren’t tied to their appearance.
Here are 3 powerful ways you can support your child in building a positive and resilient body image that can withstand the weathering effects of our dieting culture:
3 Ways to Support Your Child’s Body Image
Practice unconditional acceptance of your child’s body:
This may seem easier said than done, but have you ever stopped to consider any internalized thoughts or judgements you might have toward your child’s body size?
Because of the impact of our fat-phobic, weight-centric society, or even due to the influence of your own lived experiences in your body, you may have some underlying thoughts and feelings toward your child’s current body.
This may be especially true for children in smaller or larger bodies. What’s important to understand is how those internalized thoughts and judgements might be projected on to your child – even subconsciously.
For example, if your child is in a larger body and you’re concerned about the trajectory of their weight, these fears might be projected in the manner in which you feed them.
You might inadvertently limit them from eating certain foods that you’re worried may contribute to further weight gain or casually try to engage them in a conversation about being healthy.
These types of things, while well-intended, can impact how your child feels about their body.
Generally, children are intuitive and pick up on our energy, as well as underlying feelings that are projected through the way we engage with them. If you feel uncomfortable with your child’s body size, they will likely pick up on that and feel the same way too.
It doesn’t take long for our children to internalize the hidden messages and beliefs we carry in us about them.
So as a first step in supporting your child’s body image, practice unconditional acceptance of your child’s body – wherever it may fall.
Learn to embrace your child’s unique build and appreciate all that your child embodies, even the parts that you’re uncomfortable with and that might be triggering to you.
They will face a harsh world and reality that will constantly make them feel less in their own bodies.
Help them understand that who they are RIGHT NOW in their today body matters and is unconditionally accepted by you.
Having that safe place in you will serve as a protective factor from the messages they’ll encounter from diet culture.
Knowing they’re unconditionally accepted, no matter how they’re bodies look or change will also allow them the ability to extend that acceptance toward themselves. For more support with this, be sure to check out this blog post here: “This is Why You Need to Make Peace With Your Child’s Body Size”
2. Detach your child’s worth from their appearance:
To build on the first tip, you want to help your children learn their worth isn’t tied to their appearance, that they’re more than their bodies, how they look and how much they weigh.
Again, this is counter-culture in our appearance focused society that idolizes and elevates certain body types.
But rather than focus on these aspects with your own children that are appearance-based, consider highlighting they’re inherent worth that can’t be changed, regardless of how they look.
Children need to understand that their worth and value is unchanging, and that while their body sizes will inevitably change, this doesn’t alter their worthiness.
Again, this may be harder to implement than expected, especially if you grew up in an environment where your worth was directly tied to your appearance.
You can take small but powerful steps to show your children that their inherent worth isn’t based on their appearance or body size.
This might look like avoiding making any comments about their appearance or bodies.
Again, easier said than done, especially when society at large recognizes children first for how they look and act rather than who they actually are.
Instead of commenting on how your child looks, try focusing on their character and the qualities about themselves. See them beyond their looks and body sizes, and really take the time to recognize these unique attributes in your children.
Highlight qualities like creativity, courage, and kindness. Take the time to share what you love about your children with them directly so they can understand how you value them and that you see them beyond what society and diet culture says are the most important things about them.
As another step to this, take the time to intentionally recognize this in other people as well and let your children hear you.
We’re accustomed to commenting on how other people look and how their bodies might change, for example: “Wow, you look so great! I love what you’re doing with your hair!”, or “Wow, did you lose weight? You’re looking amazing?”
When our kids constantly hear us conversing and relating with other people in this way, it also reinforces this idea that how we look is the most important aspect of ourselves – that our worthiness is tied to appearance.
But when your children hear you relating to and engaging with others in a way that isn’t appearance focused, you can help them internalize the belief that body size and how our bodies look are truly the least interesting and important thing about us as human beings.
3. Work on your own relationship with your body:
The most powerful thing you can do to help your kids have a positive relationship with food and their bodies is to work on having those things with yourself.
As a mother myself who understands the firsthand struggle of an eating disorder and poor body image, I know how hard it can be to model the behaviors you desire your children to model if you’re unable to do those things for yourself.
And that is the reality: we can really only take our children as far as we’ve come ourselves.
If you feel stuck in a negative relationship with your body, it can be challenging to know how to support your children in building a positive relationship with their own bodies.
Much of what our children will learn about their bodies will come from the behaviors modeled to them from the caregivers around them.
Kids are sponges and learn by modeling. If they see you weighing yourself frequently, body-checking, or hear you speaking negatively about your own body, they can begin to internalize the message and belief that their bodies aren’t okay and need to be micromanaged rather than accepted.
The best gift you can give your children is your own healing. When you focus on healing your body image and relationship with food and your body, you can feel more confident in modeling behaviors that you desire your child to follow.
Not only that, but you can instill in them an example of body kindness, which will impact them more than anything else you can possibly say or teach them.
No matter what your current relationship with your body looks like, you can take small steps toward healing.
Please remember to give yourself compassion through this process. This is not about perfectionist standards or having to have it “all together” in order to help your children.
It’s about being aware of how your relationship with your body might be impacting what you’re modeling to your children.
It’s about compassion with yourself for the journey you’re on and being open to growing alongside your children.
Just remember too – you don’t have to love your body in order to practice being kind toward your body. Take those baby steps to learn how to befriend your body. Your children will see that and want to do the same things for themselves, too.
As a final note on this, be aware that sometimes professional help and support might be what is needed to help you heal your relationship with your body, especially if you have a history of trauma. Professional interventions can make all the difference, and its important to know you don’t have to navigate this journey alone.
Creating Positive Change for Your Children
You can be the change you want to see in your children.
In a world that is saturated with diet culture and that will constantly tell our children that how they look or their body size is the most important thing about them, you can help create a strong foundation from which they can grow and flourish in their relationships with their bodies.
It may feel disheartening to know what your children may encounter throughout their lives; however, be encouraged, my friend.
Every brave step you’re taking, no matter how small, is instrumental to supporting your children in building resilience against diet culture and positive body image within themselves.
If you’re a mother (or mom-to-be) who needs more support with body image issues or who is recovering from an eating disorder or disordered eating, please consider joining our free virtual support group, Lift the Shame.
Come join a community of mothers who are doing the hard healing work to have the capacity to end the legacies of diet culture in their families.
Let me know which tip above you’ll be focusing on – I’m cheering you on!