Girls as young as elementary school age are showing signs of disordered eating and a negative self-image when it comes to their bodies. Children as young as three pick up on cues from their parents about body image. When it comes to raising a child to have a healthy relationship with food and their own body, parents need to model positive behaviors.
I am seeing a continual rise in unhealthy relationships between kids and their bodies and food. Parents are asking me about how to prevent their daughters from developing problematic eating behaviors. And, while eating disorders have genetic components and are influenced by kids’ character traits and by peer groups and media exposure, parents can certainly help – or worsen – the situation.
There are concrete ways parents can help promote healthy eating and body image at home. Kids are smart and pick up on their parents’ relationship with their own bodies and with food.
If parents are counting calories, cleansing, dieting, and talking about what foods they need to avoid to fit into a pair of jeans or because bathing suit season is coming up, kids are aware of what’s going on. The impact can be harmful. Avoiding these topics should be as important as other inappropriate conversations you want to avoid in front of your children.
So how should you make sure your kids are healthy, without somehow encouraging disordered eating or body image disturbances?
- Throw out your scale and stop weighing yourself. Your child sees everything you do and seeing you weigh yourself has a significant impact on her perception of weight and body.
- Limit her access to television, magazines, and other places where unrealistic images of how girls and women should look are often presented.
- Talk about foods with regard to how they can nourish her body rather than their effects on her weight. Focus on health, not on calories, fats, or carbohydrates.
- Encourage physical activity for the sake of health rather than weight control.
- Never judge your body in front of your child. Do not say negative things about your body or even glance in the mirror in a critical way.
- Focus on all of your child’s strengths outside of her body, but make it a point to tell her how beautiful she is.
Dr. Rosenfeld is a clinical psychologist who treats patients with eating disorders, anxiety/depression and mood disorders, substance abuse issues, and relationship difficulties. She is also an exercise/sports psychologist. A certified group psychotherapist, Dr. Rosenfeld has worked at treatment centers and universities around the U.S., including at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and the Los Angeles County Psychological Association. In addition, she is certified as a personal trainer and indoor cycling instructor and previously served as the chief psychologist of the New York City Triathlon. Dr. Rosenfeld is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders; International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals; and National Eating Disorders Association. She lives and practices in southern CA, and is also licensed to practice in NY. She is the author of the book Does Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation’s Fixation with Food and Weight (June 2014).