Does your daughter change her outfit three times before going out or obsess about how fat her tummy looks? Does your son feel self-conscious that he doesn’t have enough muscles? Even the most enlightened parents struggle over the “right” thing to say to promote a healthy body image.
“There are plenty of kids who don’t have a great body image at some point during their childhood, but it doesn’t interfere with their happiness. But for other children, poor body image is a risk factor for depression, anxiety and eating disorders,” says Laurel Weaver, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and medical director of the Eating Disorder Program at CHOP. It’s hard to predict where poor body image might take a child, but a healthy body image can definitely protect against these disorders.
We asked Dr. Weaver how parents can promote healthy body image in their children. Here were her top six tips:
- Emphasize the concept of “health at every size.” Let your child know that a healthy, normal body comes in all shapes and sizes, she says. “If he exercises, eats nutritiously, eats when he’s hungry, and stops when he’s full, then he’s doing the right things to promote his health and that’s what matters,” says Dr. Weaver.
- Focus on what a body can do, not what a body looks like. When you give compliments about your child’s appearance, “try to highlight the strength, speed and power of a body — or function over form. This can be something basic, like ‘Look how your body takes you to school every day and then on to soccer practice or drama club. And isn’t it great you’re feeding your body the way it’s supposed to be fed to accomplish what you do?’” she explains.
- Explain that weight gain precedes growing taller. If your child complains about sudden weight gain, remind him that putting on weight often precedes growing taller. “Kids often grow like accordions,” she points out.
- Let your child be the one to bring up a concern about how she looks. Your child should lead the conversation about body image, and you should be there to normalize her concerns. “Encourage open communication, but wait for your child to express any concerns. Offer simple, reassuring answers that normalize body notions. “For example, if he says he wants more muscles, reassure him his body looks the way it’s supposed to look, and muscles will develop in time. If your daughter worries she has a bit of a tummy, let her know she’s supposed to have a little tummy,” says Dr. Weaver.
- Educate your child on how the media works. “A dose of media literacy goes a long way. You can start the conversation when your child is in fifth or sixth grade. Explain that magazines have perfect people on the cover in order to sell products. Talk about how photo enhancement software works to make models look perfect, and that their faces and bodies look different in real life,” she says.
- Eliminate “fat talk.” “Don’t walk around talking about how fat you are, or disparage other people for putting on weight,” she says. And avoid talk about fats in food because your child may not understand the distinctions among the types of fats and get overly concerned about becoming fat from food. “Health teachers often talk about low-fat eating with kids and it sends the wrong message. Fat is an important macronutrient in a child’s diet. Our brain is 60 percent fat. The brain stops working properly if it doesn’t have enough fat,” she explains.
It is completely normal for a child to worry about his body, especially when things start changing during puberty. Reassure your child and always remember that you are setting an example with your words and actions. If you notice a red flag like skipping meals, severe dieting or over-exercising, contact a healthcare professional.