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How to avoid passing down body image issues to your child

Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, MD
for Henry Ford Health System
Parents play a key role in helping children learn to love — and take care of — the bodies they have.

It's developmentally appropriate for kids to mimic what they see and hear from their parents. Call yourself fat on a daily basis? Your daughter is going to pick up on that. Complain that your arms are flabby or your hips are wide? Don't be surprised if your child follows suit. 

When we attack our appearance or fixate on what we don't like about our bodies, we're giving our children permission to do the same. If this all sounds too familiar, it's important to realize there is a better way.

Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, MD

Body image basics

What is body image? It's how you feel about your body. It's the picture of your body that you hold in your mind, which may or may not be accurate. Children who have a healthy body image feel satisfied with their bodies. They're comfortable in their own skin. Kids who have an unhealthy body image often focus only on their flaws. 

Research suggests children begin forming opinions about their bodies as early as three years old. They see images portrayed in the media and hear comments about size and weight from friends and well-intentioned family. Maybe a loving relative calls your toddler "chubby cheeks," or a grandparent playfully pinches your child's baby fat. Kids can internalize those things. 

The good news: Parents play a key role in helping children learn to love — and take care of — the bodies they have.

Body image boosting

Whatever your age, you're more likely to have healthy self-esteem and emotional well-being when you feel good about your body. The good news: You can set the stage for a healthy body image with these six strategies:

  1. Take advantage of teachable momentsIf your son says, "I'm fat," or, "I'm too skinny," resist the urge to say, "don't be silly." Instead, use it as an opportunity to explore what he means. Kids often repeat things they see or hear in books, at school or on TV, without really understanding the meaning. Steer the conversation toward the importance of building a healthy body and how to achieve that goal.
  2. Focus on healthy choices: Make sure your child understands that human beings come in all shapes and sizes, despite what they may see in the media. Teach your child the importance of making healthy choices to fuel her body. Then model what that looks like. So instead of telling your child, "I can't eat that, I'm on a diet," say something like "I want to be healthier so I can keep up with you."
  3. Be aware of growth spurts: It's natural for children to shoot up between the ages of 10 and 12. Girls often put on weight and develop breasts and hips before their period starts while boys may have trouble maintaining and gaining weight. In either case, body image often takes a hit during puberty. Talk about these changes in advance so your child knows what's in store and keeps his or her expectations in check.
  4. Avoid acting as the food police: Children may begin to sneak foods if they're constantly forbidden. So instead of putting junk food under lock and key, help your child develop a healthy relationship with eating. Emphasize the importance of fueling your body with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but also allow them to indulge in favorite, higher-calorie foods occasionally. 
  5. Encourage moderation: Babies are astonishingly good at recognizing hunger cues. They'll nurse or bottle feed only what they need. But once children start eating real foods, especially at school, hunger may take a back seat to taste. If they're gobbling down a bag of chips, it's a safe bet they won't recognize when they've had enough. Ask your child: Are you full? Then encourage him or her to wait a few minutes to see if it’s really hunger.
  6. Monitor your own self-talk: The way you talk about health, fitness and your own body has a profound impact on your child. Turn diet chatter into discussions about fueling your body. Instead of talking about exercising to lose weight, focus on moving more to be stronger and better equipped to take advantage of everything life has to offer. Then model healthy eating behaviors, so your child learns how to slow down and recognize hunger cues.

Becoming body image aware

Don't wait until your child is older to discuss body image issues. It's important to realize that body image extends to self-esteem — and poor self-esteem is linked to depression and anxiety. Both of these mental health conditions can lead to disordered eating and weight gain.

Concerned? Here's what to watch for:

  • Excessive talk about food and diets
  • Increased risky behaviors
  • Changing clothing choices
  • Body comparison with peers, siblings and celebrities
  • Withdrawing from friends or family
  • Avoiding enjoyable activities

If you notice your child exhibiting any of these signs, talk about your concerns. To some degree, preoccupation with body size and shape is normal, especially during puberty. But if body image issues begin to interfere with your child’s usual activities, friendships or willingness to attend social gatherings, loop in his or her pediatrician. 

To find a pediatrician or make an appointment at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Want more advice from Henry Ford experts? Subscribe today to the Henry Ford LiveWell health and wellness blog to receive weekly emails of our latest tips.    

Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness for Henry Ford LiveWell. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in midtown Detroit and Sterling Heights. Learn more about Dr. Leatherwood Cannon.

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