For National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, February 23 – March 1, 2014, I've invited Dr. Aaron Krasner, Chief of our Adolescent Transitional Living Programs, to offer some thoughts on how we can help our children develop a positive body image.
Developing a Positive Body Image in Children
Sometimes we parents forgot how important our words, thoughts, and feelings are in the lives of our kids. “We make the weather in our homes” a wiser than me parent once told me. I think it’s true – especially when it comes to eating behaviors and body image. As parents, we must be mindful of our own relationship with our bodies, how we eat, and the potential impact on our kids.
In the United States, eating disorders are becoming more prevalent and are affecting younger children. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 80% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Although many factors contribute to the development of eating disorders, a mom’s attitude about body image greatly impacts how children perceive themselves. In fact, one study found that a mom’s concerns about weight may be the third leading cause of body image problems in adolescents and girls who believed their mothers wanted them to be thin and were two to three times more likely to worry about their weight. Body image problems aren’t limited to girls. A study from Harvard School of Public Health found that nearly 18% of teen boys in the study were “extremely concerned” about their bodies.
Even if you’re trying to lose a few pounds yourself, you can negatively influence your child’s body image by casually talking about diets or expressing your desire to be thinner in front of them.
So how can you help foster a positive body image in your kids? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Try to avoid criticizing yourself or others about weight or shape in front of kids.
2. Avoid talking negatively about food – “I can’t eat potatoes because they’re carbs” or “That cake will go straight to my thighs.” It’s more important to teach the importance of healthy eating and exercise without references to weight.
3. Compliment children on their talents and accomplishments – a little praise goes a long way especially when it’s well deserved
4. Let your kids know that weight gain and changes to body shape are a natural part of the growing process.
5. Talk to your kids about their use of social media and what they see on TV. Remember, only 5% of American women have the body type that is portrayed in advertising as the ideal size and shape for women. When I look at movies even from the 1980s the tolerance for diverse types of bodies was much richer than now.
In regards to media, Americans are exposed to more media messages than ever before and it’s only expected to increase. On average, kids spend about six to seven hours per day viewing multiple mediums including TV, magazines, movies, music and the internet, while Americans as a whole consume nearly 14 hours of media per day and it’s growing at a rate of 5% a year. Whether we realize it or not, these messages are influential for everyone, but kids are particularly vulnerable so talk to them about it.
At the end of the day, parents are the most influential role models in a child’s life, so be mindful of your words and actions. They may be listening when you least expect it.
1. “Get the Facts On Eating Disorders,” National Eating Disorders Association.
2. “Moms May Influence Children’s Body Image,” The Harvard Crimson.
3. “Study Suggests Eating Disorders More Common Than Thought Among Teen Males,” The Harvard Crimson.
4. “The impact of the media on eating disorders in children and adolescents,” Pediatric Child Health. 2003 May-Jun; 8(5): 287–289.
5. University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, October 2013.