Updated: Jul 26, 2022
A lot of us can remember the first moment we didn’t like something about ourselves or felt self-conscious. For many of us, that self-awareness was brought about by a comment made by someone else, unintentionally or otherwise. It represents a loss of an element of our childhood innocence, and it’s happening younger and younger. Every caregiver wants their child to love who they are, and to see themselves through eyes of compassion and kindness. Body image distortions, low self-esteem, and eating disorders are on the rise in younger and younger kids, both boys and girls. This isn’t solely due to diet culture, bullying, or “the media” as people will often say, but a combination of genetic, social, environmental, and cultural influences. That being established, the things we say and expose our kids to do play a role, as well as the foundational beliefs we instill in them about food and bodies. While we can’t fully prevent these issues, we can help preempt some of the factors that make kids susceptible. Below we will outline tips for fostering a positive self-image in your kids and setting the base for a healthy relationship with food. We will also go over why it’s so important to start teaching kids how to have a positive relationship with food and their bodies early, and an in-depth look at how multidimensional these issues can be.
Where Does It Start?
Not every person who has low self-esteem, bad body image, or exhibits dieting behavior will develop an eating disorder. However, these behaviors are still problematic and affect a person’s quality of life even if they don’t meet a diagnostic threshold. It is a worthwhile endeavor to strive to raise our kids without a lot of the pressures and insecurities we experienced growing up. In 2015 a study showed that 80% of 10-year-old girls had been on a diet. This same research indicated that half of the girls and one-third of boys aged 6-8 wished they were thinner. In 1970 the average age a girl started dieting was 14. Today the average age is 8. Studies examining why kids hold these feelings about themselves and food have found that most of the children had a parent who was dieting or spoke negatively about their body, and most of the kids held the same beliefs about food as their mothers. Additionally, most of the children associated thinness with positive qualities and obesity with negative qualities. This is disconcerting, heartbreaking, and unfortunately exacerbated not only by social expectations but also our well-meaning attempts to teach healthy eating and exercise. It shows that not only are our kids paying very close attention to what we do and say, but also to the subconscious messages we relay about size, weight, and food. While we will never be able to eradicate eating issues because they are not caused solely by societal expectations and external forces, we can reduce the likelihood, severity, and sheer volume of eating disorders in our kids by adjusting the way we handle food and body conversations. We must start by changing how we talk about food and what we teach kids about it in school and at home. Politicians have played a significant role in what our kids are taught in school about health and eating. The war on childhood obesity has featured lessons on BMI, “red light and green light” foods, intake journals, teaching about calories and fat grams, and diagrams of organs suffocated by layers of visceral fat. when I was in elementary school, about 4th grade (circa 2004), we watched a videotape on a TV that they rolled into the heath classroom on a metal cart, where cartoon foods battled to be chosen for a snack. The kids who chose chocolate instead of apples in this show were portrayed as lethargic and dense. The kids who chose the “healthy” snacks were smiling, well dressed, and praised for their good decisions. This was followed by our teacher taking everyone’s weight and height, in front of the whole class, to calculate our BMIs. I was naturally very underweight my entire childhood, easily one of the smallest in my class, and I was still horrified at the idea of being measured in front of everyone. We were taught that higher numbers were bad, but no one ever told us there was such a thing as too low. I can remember my takeaway from these lessons was terror that if I did not eat perfectly my arteries would fill with fat and I would die of a heart attack. Not only was I petrified by the idea that any junk food I ate would destroy my organs and make me balloon, I already had low self-esteem unrelated to my body. I saw an opportunity to be worthy and redeem myself for my faults through achieving a perfect diet. I was determined to always eat my 5 fruits and vegetables a day, never eat the bad things at the top of the food pyramid, and avoid fats and sugars that would clog my arteries. I was not the only one. I have talked to numerous people whose experiences echo my own. It didn’t stop with that lesson, either. Through middle and high school I took multiple classes that required us to keep food diaries, track our macronutrients, and weigh or measure ourselves. The intention was good, but the focus on numbers and “good” or “bad” foods lends itself to obsession. Because the goal of these lessons was reducing childhood obesity instead of educating about balance, the teachings imparted a fear of weight gain, shame around “fattening” foods, and a sense of value attached to body size. At lunch, the girls started competing to see who could eat less of their “junk” foods. Ordering chocolate milk instead of white was seen as a sign of weakness. On the playground instead of bragging about who stayed up the latest the night before, it was about who had gone the longest without eating. Children are naturally dichotomous thinkers. Their world is divided into good and bad, heroes and villains. This is a major issue when teaching about nuanced topics, and when you take a child who has this black and white thinking and combines that with perfectionism, low self-esteem, major life changes, turmoil at home, people-pleasing, a parent or other role model who is dieting, or the intense desire to fit in and be liked, it is a recipe for disaster. There are innumerable factors that can cause a child to latch onto manipulating their diet and body. Eventually, as more time passed from these units, most of the children would let go of the rigid dieting behaviors they’d tried out for a while. The ideas would stay tucked away in the backs of their minds to be reaffirmed as they got older. Some of them didn’t return to normal though, harboring a fear of overeating or consuming junk. I was among them. For us, these messages had found their way to a more commanding part of our consciousness and affected not only how we saw ourselves but how we behaved in the long term. Children with predispositions for OCD and eating disorders often found those lessons to be what ‘flipped a switch’ internally, so to speak, and started the development of their issues with food. It also can’t be understated the effect that a parent’s relationship with food has on their children. As mentioned before, almost all children who engage in early dieting have a parent who diets. Most kids develop their expectations for their weight and shape from their parents. We have a responsibility to be careful what messages we teach our kids about diet and weight because those will stick with them for the rest of their lives. Without a healthy foundation, kids are far more likely to develop an eating disorder or body dysmorphia.
Why do these issues increase during puberty?
For a lot of people, the evolution of these internalized messages into disordered eating and unhealthy behaviors begins around puberty. This is due to a number of factors associated with this stage of life. The biggest one is the rapid and pronounced changes in body size and shape. Keep in mind that from a young age our kids are taught that lower BMIs are better, gaining weight and being fat is bad, and overeating (which is never clearly defined) will make you unhealthy and sick. An abrupt change in appearance is very disconcerting to a child. Our bodies are a source of familiarity and an extension of who we are. Massive changes in a short period of time can leave kids feeling foreign in their own skin and experiencing an internal identity crisis. As an example, I went from being incredibly thin, the tiny one, constantly told how little I was and how jealous people were (adults and children alike). Being small felt like part of my identity. Late summer before 6th grade and early into the fall, there was a change in my shape and size. I gained what I thought to be a horrendous amount of weight. My chest grew to a degree that felt practically exponential overnight, and suddenly people were treating me differently in a way that made me feel lonely and icky. My favorite clothes didn’t fit, and I was convinced that this must mean I was overeating. After all, that’s what I had been taught. This weight gain was far too fast, and I got it in my head that I needed to stay at 60 pounds. In 5th grade, I had been 55 pounds, and I felt that I had not grown tall enough to justify any more than a 5-pound gain. Maintaining the number I chose would prove I was not overeating and that I was not greedy. I adjusted my diet, trying to eat only “good” foods and exercise more. I was determined to stay smaller than my classmates, just like I had been my entire life. I resented the comments from adults about how I was “filling out”. It made my skin crawl when people noticed my body. I wasn’t the only 6th grader obsessed with what they weighed and uncomfortable with the attention. Any one of my female classmates (and likely a lot of the boys too) could’ve told you their weight down to the ounce, even the ones who didn’t have “issues”. A lot of them lied about what they weighed too, for fear that the real number was too high. At 11 and 12 years old, we were already fixated on our size as a measure of our value. Another major factor is that the body changes in tweens and teens lead to a sexualization of their figures. Despite still being children mentally, adolescents begin to look more mature. Especially in girls who develop early, eating disorders can manifest as an attempt at slowing down or stopping this maturation because they resent the unwanted attention and being seen as sexual beings long before they are ready to. These girls through no fault of their own find themselves being stared at, made fun of, and inappropriately spoken to by peers and adults alike. This can cause them to feel exposed and vulnerable, distort their mental view of their bodies, and lead them to feel that they are shameful or bad. It is incredibly detrimental and a form of grooming to focus on or assign meaning to a child’s body in a way that sexualizes them. At the age of 12, I can remember grown adults telling me I had “a huge rack”, or scolding me for wearing clothes that “showed too much skin” (aka, the same tank top as my flat-chested best friend). It is devastating as a child to realize that your body makes adults uncomfortable, that the rules will always be different for you, and that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Statistically, girls who develop younger are far more likely to be groomed, assaulted, or harassed. They are also more likely to be teased or excluded by their peers. Most of these girls will internalize this unwanted and negative attention as their fault, and respond by trying to change or hide their bodies. Some will respond in the opposite manner. All of them will grapple with guilt, fear, shame, and anxiety.
Another aspect of puberty that lends itself to the formation of eating issues is the emotional changes it entails. Puberty comes with a drastic drop in self-esteem for girls especially. Even kids who were previously self-assured and confident find themselves feeling inadequate. Beginning at the age of 12, it's a 30% decrease in self-confidence on average for girls. Boys don’t tend to struggle so intensely with the changes brought on by puberty, as the increase in muscle mass and facial hair are seen positively and as a mark of masculinity. However, for boys who develop later than their peers, there is a steep decline in their self-esteem and an uptick in aggressive behavior. It should also be noted that the presence of eating disorders in boys who generally don’t experience the same level of body dissatisfaction as girls further illustrates that eating disorders are not solely about appearance or weight. Often, puberty is the onset of anxiety or depression issues for those who experience them. For others, it’s simply a constant shift of intense emotions they are trying to navigate alongside equally volatile peers. Friends fight more, issues like crushes and how popular you become important, and this age group tends to be more “dramatic” in general. I say that in quotes because while their concerns may seem insignificant or blown out of proportion to an adult, to an adolescent they feel very real and very overwhelming. Minimizing their feelings as dramatic will only cause them to isolate and internalize their emotions. Restricting intake, binge eating, or trying to change shape or weight can manifest out of a desire to be more liked or popular, an attempt to stave off or cope with the strong emotions being felt, or a longing to fit in with peers who are also dieting or have different body types. Often it happens accidentally, with a missed meal that causes the person to realize they feel calmer when they don’t eat or an illness that leads them to lose a few pounds. Adolescents are much more susceptible to experimental diets spiraling into a problem. It’s so important to be sensitive to our kids during this time of their life. Remember how uncomfortable it was, and avoid making comments about the changes they are going through outside of helping them to address them privately and compassionately. As weird as it is for us to see our children sprout armpit hair and change shape, it’s even weirder for them. We can be kind to our kids by not pointing out or adding to their insecurities.
The turmoil of adolescence itself is enough to cause a spike in mental health issues, but when combining the physical changes, emotional challenges, and drop in self-esteem with lessons about metabolism and calories, plus external pressure to stay a certain size and often major influence from social media, we end up with a hotbed for eating problems to arise.
About Eating Disorders
An eating disorder is a disturbance in eating and behavior that leads to physical or mental impairments and problems. One of the more confusing aspects of eating disorders is that they are not predictable. While there are common characteristics of people who develop different disorders, those characteristics don’t guarantee that a person will develop an eating disorder and people can develop one without having any of those traits. Per The Emily Program, 1 in 5 women struggles with an eating disorder or disordered eating. In America, 24 million people struggle with disorders ranging from anorexia to binge eating disorder. There are a lot of factors that can lead to these issues, and many people who suffer from them describe a “perfect storm” culminating in their illness.
Eating disorders are unique to every individual who has one. To be cheeky, there is no “one size fits all”. The causes range from trauma to dysfunctional home life, to inaccurate beliefs about food, and more. Often it’s a combination of factors that facilitates the development of a problem. Eating disorders are more than just binging, purging, and restricting. Over-exercising, obsession with eating “healthy” or “clean”, and restricting or eliminating food groups like dairy or meat are all common symptoms. Additionally, some people who have them don’t actually care about their weight or appearance at all. There is a misconception that eating disorders and body image issues are isolated to western or developed countries, white females and that they are caused by the media, magazines, photoshop, and Barbie dolls. These oversimplifications are harmful not only because they paint the illness as one of vanity and privilege, but also because they can cause misdiagnosis or underdiagnosis in populations that don’t fit the stereotypes. Food is not the actual problem, but rather the way in which the individual is attempting to cope with something else. Studies in Africa have concluded that eating disorders are just as common in white and black students and that they occur even in rural areas with different societal beauty expectations than those of the western world.
“In Africa, a study was conducted in a rural area where eating disorders were found. Researchers from Scotland studied over 600 female adolescents at a middle school in Ghana to see if they met the criteria for anorexia nervosa. Those who participated were found to come from various social statuses, and all were financially stable with access to food.
A small number of girls were found to have low weight due to dieting behaviors, and the group stated reasons for dieting as religious fasting, dieting around times of stress, and feelings of self-control. In a 1986 study in Zimbabwe, a sample of black, white, and mixed-race schoolgirls showed eating disorder pathology and in South Africa, research is showing that eating disorders are on the rise.” (Article by Libby Lyons, LCSW and CEDS)
That particular study only accounts for one diagnosis, but still demonstrates that eating disorders are not exclusive to Western cultures and are not a direct byproduct of modern beauty standards, even if they do play a role for some people.
Another major myth is that eating disorders only happen to kids from troubled backgrounds or who have been abused. While those factors increase the risk, they are not a prerequisite. Plenty of people who develop disorders describe their childhoods as happy, with no major trauma or complaints. Sometimes the disorder starts as the desire to improve at a sport, or a goal to eat healthier, and morphs into a dangerous problem. Sometimes disordered behaviors evolve out of an attempt to cope with anxiety or depression. Sometimes nothing can be pinned as the main cause. Doctors still don’t understand the exact pathology that causes them.
A third misconception is that eating disorders are an attempt at getting attention, especially in teenage girls. While there are likely instances in which this is true, there are two things to consider here. Number one is that if someone is so desperate to be noticed they are willing to starve themselves there is a real issue that needs to be addressed. The second is that most people with an eating disorder work tirelessly to disguise it and keep it hidden from family and friends. They respond to questions with denial, and they do not want to be noticed. Reducing their struggle to a plea for attention is demeaning and will likely keep them from coming to you in the future if they need help. There are many fallacies widely believed about eating disorders, enough to write an article on that topic alone. These include that eating disorders are a choice, are outgrown in adulthood, are only serious at low weights, can’t be cured until the person is ‘ready to recover’, are the same as drug or alcohol addiction, and only happen to girls. None of these statements are accurate. In spite of how widespread eating disorders are, and children as young as first grade being hospitalized because of them, there is a massive gap in public understanding. If you have any concerns about your child’s eating habits or relationship with their body, it’s important to have them be seen promptly by a doctor and therapist to assess if there are problems that need to be addressed. The sooner it is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. The success rate for treating eating disorders drops substantially the longer the person is sick. No one wants their child to struggle, but ignoring warning signs can lead to a worse outcome. Eating disorders require professional help to heal from, and they thrive in chaos and dysfunction. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, and children are not exempt from this statistic. They can cause permanent damage to organs, fertility, and brain function. One of the main organs affected is the heart, which may become weakened, beat slowly or erratically, or atrophy irreparably. Mood and personality are also often altered as a result of malnutrition. The severity of the possible side effects, as well as the impact on quality of life, make the work of being intentional about how we teach our kids about food and weight completely worth it. While we can’t completely prevent eating disorders, we can help to reduce their prevalence.
Something to keep in mind is that the brain chemistry of those who develop eating disorders is often different than those who do not. For instance, in patients with anorexia, being hungry can release endorphins that cause them to feel calm and so hunger is not distressing. This is usually discovered accidentally and explains why some people who do crash diets will go on to develop an eating disorder and some won't. For patients with anorexia, eating actually spikes serotonin levels in their brain causing intense anxiety and fear. The resistance to recovery is not a choice, but a reaction to feeling panicked and in danger every time they eat. In binge eating disorder, consuming lots of foods, often high in sugar and fat, causes a similar calm or happy feeling. Afterward, the person is usually overcome with regret. It becomes a vicious cycle where they binge eat impulsively to cope with stress or emotions and then feel deep regret. They sometimes then try to restrict their intake to compensate, which leads to extreme hunger and a rise in the hormones that control appetite, usually culminating in another binge. In bulimia, the patient tries to get rid of the food after eating. For some this includes binge eating, for others, it is simply their normal intake. They might use methods like laxatives, vomiting, or excessive exercise to achieve this. Patients with bulimia often describe the feeling they get after purging to be euphoric or peaceful. There are other lesser-known disorders such as orthorexia (an obsession with clean or healthy eating) and AFRID (avoidant food restrictive intake disorder, usually which doesn’t relate to body image at all). A common denominator in all of these is a dysfunctional attempt to navigate emotional challenges. The irony is that the disorders themselves actually cause more problems in the brain and usually worsen mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and reinforcing the abnormal reactions to food and hunger by engaging in disordered behavior only increases the intensity of it. Malnutrition actually causes a fixation with food and can cause a distortion of appearance, meaning that the more the sufferer engages in their disorder the deeper they fall into it. Sometimes, even when the disorder didn’t start as an attempt to lose weight, it evolves into that as the brain begins to obsess over food and weight in its state of starvation. The disorder serves some kind of purpose, whether the individual experiencing it is aware of it or not. As eating disorders are illnesses of the brain, we should approach them with compassion and patience. As frustrating as it can be to watch a loved one battling what seems like a self-imposed problem, know that it is not a choice and they are struggling immensely.
What role does society and the media play?
I’ve spent a lot of time hammering home those beauty standards, society, and social media aren’t the cause of eating disorders. It’s an easy scapegoat to accuse magazines and models and social media, and it seems like a reasonable accusation on a superficial level. If someone thinks that eating disorders are only about being skinny or pretty, then of course the natural assumption would be that the source of those desires is the cause. The fact of the matter is that those things don’t cause eating disorders. That being said, they can contribute to the problem. The distinction is important because someone who is struggling with an eating disorder cannot be healed by being convinced they are beautiful the way they are. However, someone who is vulnerable to developing an eating disorder can have their risk of becoming ill reduced if they are not exposed to as much unrealistic imagery and expectations. Addressing the uniform and ingenuine representation of beauty our kids and teens are exposed to would help with self-esteem issues, thereby making them less prone to developing a disorder in the first place. Constant comparison on Instagram or TikTok (usually with filters) is unhealthy for kids and adults alike. There are numerous studies, including one conducted by Facebook itself, demonstrating how toxic social media is for the self-esteem of teenagers, particularly girls. To further that, younger and younger kids are on social media, meaning their exposure begins earlier in their development and so does their decrease in self-esteem. In those who are already vulnerable, constant exposure to thin, airbrushed bodies and the equation of smallness with goodness can fan the flames of a budding issue. Filters on Snapchat and other platforms breed insecurities by actually changing the shape of facial features. Most of the filters meant to look pretty make the nose smaller, the eyes bigger, and the chin more narrow. They smooth away acne, freckles, or bumps. This sends the message that our faces aren’t pretty the way they are. I myself, at 26, even fall prey to feeling prettier with a beautification filter. Many teenage girls now refuse to post pictures of themselves without some kind of filter, and yet only 30% of them could correctly identify when a picture of someone else had been edited in a survey conducted in 2019. They are engrossed in a fake world, looking up to insecure influencers who seldom show themselves in an honest manner. It is absolutely true that we would be much healthier as a society if we were exposed to more diversity in shape and appearance from advertisers and role models. Some companies are starting to include a wide variety of shapes and characteristics in their advertising. Aerie no longer photoshops cellulite or scars off their models. Companies are making a concerted effort to show a variety of colors, heights, build, and differences in their advertisements. This is a great step in the right direction to helping kids and teens learn to accept and love themselves as they are. Also, remember that fostering healthy self-esteem earlier and modeling self-acceptance will also make them more resilient against negative messages.
Other factors to consider with the rise in social media are the exposure to inappropriate content, sexualization of kids, rampant bullying, and groups of mentally ill individuals pulling each other deeper into their illness. These things all contribute to the increase and severity of eating disorders in a major way. Exposure to violence and adult content or topics at young ages is associated with an increase in mental health issues. The internet and social media are very easy places to accidentally encounter these things. In particular, Tumblr, Reddit, Discord, Twitter, TikTok, and Snapchat are overrun with inappropriate content. Not only that, but there are secret groups on every platform where kids, teens, and even adults struggling with mental illness congregate. Particularly for those who are feeling unwanted, unlikable, or socially inept, these groups offer solace and comfort, a sense of belonging. The issue is that often this sucks them in, causing them to retreat further into their illness. It becomes their identity, erasing who they are outside their illness, and they detach from the real world and the people around them. There is no doubt that support groups can be a healthy place for understanding and venting, but in many cases, especially when the participants are minors, they instead become toxic and pull the sufferers deeper into their issues. For eating disorders, some of these groups even offer help to each other in hiding their problems and lying to their loved ones so they won’t get caught. It's a dangerous and alluring world for someone feeling lost and misunderstood. Also facilitated by social media is bullying. I think sometimes we are desensitized to the word bullying because we hear so much about it. It ellicites an image of an alpha kid holding a weaker classmate against their locker and demanding their lunch money. The reality is much more sinister. Most bullying now takes place online. The internet offers anonymity and encourages more cruelty than someone would use when having to look their victim in the eye. Talking to people over a screen dehumanizes them and makes it easier to speak without thinking. It also removes the immediate consequences of cruelty (the target crying, for instance) that would usually cause remorse and empathy, acting as a deterrent for that behavior. Whereas before social media children could go home for a respite from being teased, it is now relentless, following them home. Even if they are not being directly bullied, kids can see their peers doing things without them. They have a direct window into the things they were not invited to and otherwise might not have even known about. Feeling excluded, even if it wasn’t intentional, can wreak havoc on a child's self-esteem. As a caregiver, it's vital to make sure you know what your children are seeing and doing online, who they are talking to, and what they are learning. Monitoring internet access is not overbearing, it is responsible. We make sure to be present in other areas of their lives, knowing who they are friends with and where they are going, and yet some parents recoil at the idea of monitoring what their kids do online, feeling it too invasive. There are apps that allow a balance between giving your kids privacy and trust and making sure they are safe. Bark, for instance, monitors texts and social media apps and will only alert you if there is something of concern, such as self-harm, sexual content, or bullying. It’s tough to strike a balance between letting our kids have freedom and privacy while also protecting them, but there are numerous tools emerging to help meet this need. The bottom line is that keeping kids off social media as long as possible, limiting their time, and making sure we know what they are doing can greatly improve their self-confidence and reduce the incidence of mental illness they experience.
What signs of a problem should I look for in my kids?
Preoccupation with food, calories, weight, clothing size, or nutrition facts
Falling off their growth curve
Hiding their bodies in loose or baggy clothing
Lying about what or when they ate/ pretending to eat
Hiding food or eating in secret
Hoarding food they don’t ever eat
Going to the bathroom immediately after eating and returning with watery or red eyes and splotchy skin
Frequent comments about feeling fat or out of shape, or needing to get healthier
Acting more withdrawn or other changes in social behavior
Changes to their personality
Checking their weight frequently, their appearance in mirrors, or measuring their size in other ways like wrapping their fingers around their wrists
Keeping a food diary
Downloading calorie and exercise tracking apps to their phone
Excessive or compulsive exercise, including exercising when sick or tired
No longer eating favorite foods
Eliminating entire food groups by going vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free etc without a diagnosed medical reason
Changes in their weight either up or down, especially rapidly
Anxiety around mealtimes
Looking pale or tired
Fainting spells or dizziness
Eating large quantities of food in a frenzied and chaotic manner (binge eating)
What is a Positive Way to Teach my Kids about Eating Healthy?
It is important that when trying not to breed unhealthy behaviors in our kids that we don’t swing completely in the other direction and not teach them anything about nutrition and fueling their bodies. There is a way to teach our kids about nutrition that is not harmful or likely to lead to disordered behaviors or struggles with appetite and weight.
This method focuses on teaching about balance and functionality. There are no good or bad foods because food is a neutral object. All foods have something to offer our bodies, including candy and chips or other foods we would typically label as “bad”. It is important to emphasize that too much of any food is not good for us, and we need a wide variety to meet our physiological needs. Instead of saying “you can’t have any more ice cream because it’s unhealthy and has too much sugar” you could say, “You already had ice cream. If you’re still hungry you should pick something different so you can get a variety of nutrients”. This also addresses picky eating and kids who only want to eat one thing. “I know you really like chicken nuggets, but if that’s the only thing you eat your body won’t get all the nutrition it needs to feel good and work.” Talk about what different foods do for us while kids are eating them. “Did you know carrots can help your eyesight? They have vitamins specifically for that! Did you know macaroni helps make your bones strong? That's because it has calcium.” Focus on the positive elements of foods. You might find your kids start asking you what other foods can do too! Be sure not to label any foods as gross or yucky and model the behavior you want to see in them. Eat together, and keep mealtimes positive. Don’t use fear to get your kids to eat healthily. Telling them they’ll die or get diabetes if they don’t eat better will only make things worse. Focus instead on how our bodies do lot for us, and all the different parts of our body need different food to work. This can be particularly tricky if you have a child who is over or underweight and it is affecting their health negatively. While trying to help them we often accidentally make things worse. Focus on how they feel and not how they look, don’t use exercise as a punishment or imply its purpose is losing weight, and continue focusing on balance. Singling the child out during meals by feeding them something vastly different or not allowing them to have snacks is damaging and will cause more problems than it solves in the grand scheme of things. Make changes as a family without blaming it on the child, and find compassionate and discrete ways to help them. It would also be prudent to find a pediatrician, dietician, or another provider who is knowledgeable in managing weight concerns in a compassionate and practical way.
Guidelines for Discussion and Interaction
Don’t label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
We want to teach our kids to eat healthily and make smart choices with the things they put in their bodies. However, assigning morality to food has two unintended consequences- first, it makes the “bad” foods inherently more desirable and makes kids more likely to fight or hold out to have them. Adults are the same way! Secondly, it creates a degree of shame or “naughtiness” to the bad foods, which sets up a foundation of thinking that you are bad for eating “bad” foods. In kids, especially those with perfectionistic or people-pleasing tendencies, this is a recipe for poor self-image and creating a cycle of trying to eat perfectly, giving in, and feeling self-loathing. It can also be the foundation of an eating disorder later in life. This applies to any form of assigning morality to food, including “red light green light” foods, calling food “healthy” or “junk”, or ranking them.
2. Don’t comment on your child’s size, even in a way that seems positive
Every comment we make about our children sends them a message, and they retain more than you realize. While it would seem obvious not to say things like “You have a big stomach” or “Your thighs are bigger than your sisters”, what people don’t realize is that comments about being skinny are also harmful. A child who constantly hears how tiny, skinny, or little they are begins to incorporate that as a part of their identity. It becomes part of what makes them who they are and what makes them likable. If they ever gained weight or their body changes, which happens during puberty, this feels like a loss of a part of their identity and they will either try to fight the process or internalize guilt and shame over the changes.
3. Don’t point out their characteristics in a way that might make them self-conscious, ie “you have a big nose/smallmouth/your eyes are far apart/your shoulders are wide”
It is common sense that we would never make observations on an adult's physical characteristics, but for some reason, this etiquette goes out the window once kids are involved. I had adults make comments to me that spurred insecurities I never would have thought of if it hadn’t been pointed out. I never once thought about my shoulders or my knuckles or my toes until someone made a comment that there was something noticeable about them. Even if it’s intended to be harmless, it’s best not to make comments about a child’s features. If you are complimenting an aspect of their appearance, such as telling them they have beautiful eyes, be sure not to do it in a way that compares them to other people. “Your eyes are prettier than all your friends” is not a helpful or healthy statement and encourages kids to begin comparing themselves to others.
4. Speak positively about your own body and appearance
Our kids think the world of us. They think we are perfect, beautiful, and amazing. They don’t care what we look like if our hair is messy, what we weigh if we have wrinkles, or how we dress. They look to us to know what is normal behavior. When we insult ourselves, nitpick our appearance, or call ourselves fat in front of them we are teaching them several things- firstly that it’s okay and even normal to be mean to ourselves. Secondly, that size or appearance matters to you and what you think of a person. Thirdly, you are showing them that the person they think is absolutely perfect does not like themselves. We all have insecurities and things we would like to change about ourselves, but when we voice these in front of our kids we are normalizing that behavior and setting a bad example. They will begin to look to themselves for flaws too, and likely develop the same obsessions and insecurities.
5. Don’t link physical characteristics or size with morality and character
Be very careful not to send accidental messages that link appearance with character or morals. This means not insinuating that being large means being lazy, or that thin people are smarter or more motivated. It also goes beyond weight- it is dangerous to teach our kids that any aspect of a person’s looks can tell you about who they are, what they believe, or what they are like. Skin color, hair color, height, shoe size, acne- these are all things controlled by genes and say absolutely nothing about a person other than the makeup of their DNA. It is up to us not to teach our kids that these things have some underlying meaning or can actually determine how good or bad someone is. One of the best gifts we can give our children is actively making sure we do not pass on our prejudices.
6. Focus on what their body can do, not how it looks
Our bodies are not decorations. They are not idols, accessories, or fixtures. Our bodies are made for function, and the function seldom depends on how it looks. Focus on the incredible things your child can do instead of what they look like. “Your legs are strong, they help you run so fast” instead of “You have such muscular legs”, for example.
7. Don’t use food to punish or humiliate, and don’t require your kids to always eat everything in front of them
This one is tricky. A lot of us grew up being made to make clean plates, eat what was in front of us, and eat things we hated. Kids can be very picky eaters, and as caregivers, we want to make sure they are getting enough and getting balance. Forcing them to clear their plates, however, teaches kids to ignore their bodies' natural cues. This is something that carries into adulthood and can lead to overeating. Instead of insisting that they finish their plate, encourage them to try everything on it. When they say they are done, ask them if they feel full. If they didn’t really eat much, leave their plate for them to eat later. If 10 minutes after telling you they were done they want a snack, you can say “You told me your tummy was full. If that’s true, you don’t need a snack. If it’s not, I need you to eat the food I made. It’s on the table”. Don’t argue or negotiate, just repeat that and let them know that if they are hungry they need to eat what you made. Let them tell you when they are full or not. Additionally, don’t use food to punish. Forcing kids to eat broccoli as a punishment could lead to a lifelong aversion to vegetables, and will cause them to feel distrustful of food. With this point, I’m also reminded of the scene in Matilda where the boy is forced to eat an entire chocolate cake in front of his school as a punishment for sneaking a piece of the principal’s cake. I don’t think it needs much elaboration that associating shame or humiliation with food is a recipe for disaster. Do not punish binge eating or secret eating with forced food. Creating negative associations with eating and food creates problems that stick for the rest of the child’s life.
8. Encourage trying new things, but don’t force it
You may have heard that a child has to try something around 20 times before they truly know if they like it or not. Picky eating is a pain, and no one wants their child to be a picky eater, but sometimes the way we try to handle picky eating actually makes it worse. We can’t force kids to eat anything. At the end of the day, a power struggle over trying food is a losing battle for everyone. You cannot physically force your child to swallow, and punishing them relentlessly for not eating creates negative associations and anxiety around food and meals. What we can do is offer them everything. Put it on their plate, and teach them to tolerate the presence of food they don’t like or want. Ask them to take a “no thank you” bite. They try one bite, and if they don’t want more they can say no thank you. Even if they didn’t like something once, give it to them again the next time you make it. Just continue to offer foods without creating pressure around it, and eventually, your kids will surprise you by eating new things. The big takeaway is not forcing it or ending up in a power struggle over trying new food.
9. Don’t comment on other people’s bodies
Our kids are always listening to us. They take in more than we realize. When we comment on other people’s bodies it sends them a message. Firstly it tells them that you are judging other people by their appearance, and will make them more self-conscious around you. Secondly, it will make your kid worry other people are looking at their bodies and judging them. It creates heightened insecurity. Thirdly, it teaches that it’s okay to make comments on other people’s bodies, and that’s not a great precedent to set. It’s an unkind thing to do, and it’s not something we want to teach our kids.
10. Don’t equate exercise with punishment or misery
Physical activity is important for our health. It has numerous benefits, from cardiovascular to mental well-being and more. We want our kids to be active and to enjoy it, so it’s important to make sure we frame exercise in a positive light. Complaining about having to run so that we can have dessert sets the tone that exercise is awful and something we have to do to punish ourselves for eating “bad” foods. This ties back to the first point that we don’t want to assign morality to food as well. Instead, talk about how good exercise makes you feel. Talk about being strong, reaching goals, and being kind to your body by giving it the activity it needs. Talk about how exercise helps us learn everything we are capable of, can help us sleep, assist in regulating bad moods, and keep our organs healthy. Exercise should not be tied to what we eat, other than to remind our kids that we need to fuel our bodies in order for them to work properly.
11. Let go of hyper fixation with numbers
Calories, weight, pant size, fat grams, BMI- we’ve all got something we obsess
over. But these numbers, while they can be guide points, aren’t the end all be all of health. They are simply numbers, part of a larger picture, and they don’t say anything about our worth. It’s very easy to fixate on these numbers as a tangible way to measure our value or how good we are, especially when we grew up being taught to do so, but these obsessions are not healthy and they are not something we want to pass on to our kids. Unless there is an actual medical reason, tracking calories is unnecessary. Trying to stay at a specific weight is a futile and exhausting endeavor, given the natural fluctuations we experience and how our bodies change with time. Focusing on the number on a tag is pointless, especially since every brand sizes a little bit differently. Even BMI is fallible, as it doesn’t account for muscle vs fat mass. Instead, trends in these numbers and how we are feeling is a much better marker. Your doctor can discuss with you if there’s an actual concern, and the same is true for kiddos. We don’t want our kids to pick up on the obsession with numbers. Most people don’t need a scale in their home, or an app to track their intake. If you are working on losing weight or changing your diet for health reasons, make sure to frame it positively for your kids. “I’m making sure my body gets the right amount of the nutrients that it needs” or “I want to make sure my body is healthy so it can function at its best”. Make sure to remind your kids that they do not need to change their weight or diet to mimic you. Don’t discuss goal weights or calorie targets or any of those kinds of measurements. Don’t weigh yourself in front of your kids. Make sure your lifestyle adjustments don’t become your whole personality or seep into every aspect of how you interact with your kids. There’s nothing wrong with making changes to be healthier, but we have to be conscious about how we model that around our kids.
12. Be sensitive during puberty
For both boys and girls, puberty is weird, uncomfortable, and awkward. Developing early, late, or differently than peers is isolating and embarrassing. When handling things like body odor and hair, acne, and clothes not fitting the same, be sure to be sensitive. Frame things in a positive light. “You’re about the age where it's time to start wearing deodorant. A lot of your friends will be too. Do you want to go pick out a scent you like with me?”. “You might’ve noticed you have hair in your armpits now. That’s normal. Some girls like to get rid of that hair. If you want to start shaving please let me know and I can help”. “Let's go to the store and find some clothes that you feel good in and like. Is there a store you want to go to first to look?”. Preempting some embarrassing situations is also a good idea. Before your daughter begins to develop breasts, let her know that it will happen and that they might show through her shirts. Buy a few sports bras or training bras for her to have once she notices this so she won’t feel so exposed or uncomfortable. Tell your son he may begin to have erections for no reason and how he can handle it. Don’t make the changes to your kid's bodies a big deal or treat them differently because of it. They can sense your discomfort and will think there is something wrong with them. Be careful not to sexualize your kids because of these changes. Just because their bodies are mature does not mean they are, and it's very harmful to assign adult meaning to a child’s body and behavior. It can lead to early sexual behaviors and susceptibility to grooming. It is not our children’s job to make sure people don’t look at them inappropriately. Asking them to wear clothes that fit and aren’t overly revealing is fine, but be careful that your rationale isn’t “so boys don’t get the wrong idea” or “because you shouldn't show off your curves”. This is less of an issue with boys, as people don’t generally care what they wear or police them the same way they do girls. It is important that we do not make our girls think it is their job to make sure boys don’t look at them the wrong way for a number of reasons, which we will save for another article, but in regards to their body image we do not want to create shame around our daughter's bodies especially since they do not have any control over what they look like or how big or small or flat or curvy they will be. When talking about appropriate clothing, focus on functionality. For example, a short skirt is hard to play in and your underwear might show. Pants that are too loose will need to be pulled up constantly which is annoying to the wearer. When adults assign sexual intent to a child’s body or clothing, the problem is with the adult and not the child. We will eventually write a blog about how this pertains to teenagers specifically, as they try to develop their independence and maturity, but for now, the bottom line is that it is not healthy for our children’s self-image to respond to their changing bodies by attaching adult meaning and intent to their behavior and clothing. Even if it is well-intentioned, it does not have the desired effect and can often create the issues it tries to prevent.
13. Give some freedom with food
Food can become easy grounds for power struggles. Giving your kids options makes that less likely, and teaches them to follow their own appetite cues. Have a basket the kids can reach with a variety of snack options they can choose from. They can have anything they want from the basket. Let them assist with meal planning and grocery shopping. This helps prevent food from becoming an area they use to exert control.
14. Eat together regularly
Eating meals together is not only an excellent way to bond and get to know your kids better, but it is also an opportunity to create positive memories and associations with food. Keep mealtimes happy and light, and use it as a chance to be funny and learn about your kids. It will also allow you to notice early if your child is displaying problematic eating behaviors.
15. Model healthy eating habits including not skipping meals or engaging in fad diets
Can you remember the first diet you ever did? For me, it was the Special K diet, and I was 11. That sounds really young, but statistically, it isn’t. Most girls that age have already started experimenting with dieting. Maybe for you, it was Atkins or low fat. As we’ve reiterated above, our kids look to us to know what is normal and acceptable behavior. We wouldn’t want them to follow crazy restrictive diets, and so we shouldn't either. Not to mention that those diets almost never lead to long-term weight loss and can actually cause an increase in binge eating and yo-yo weight fluctuations. Also- it is important not to talk about not eating all day, skipping meals, or having coffee instead of food. If you think back to high school or college (and honestly you still probably hear this at playdates) you most likely remember others lamenting how they hadn’t eaten all day, or how they had skipped lunch, like a badge of honor. We need to teach kids that restrictive eating is not a source of pride, it is not normal, and is not something to brag about. Nor is it an effective way to lose weight, as it also leads to an increase in binge eating which can start an exhausting cycle of feeling guilty and ashamed>skipping meals and dieting>feeling hungry/losing control, and binging>feeling guilty and ashamed. Rinse and repeat.
16. Don't compare your child to peers or siblings
People are all built uniquely. Comparing kids to one another is a sure-fire way to give them a complex and create issues with insecurity and self-worth. Avoid comparing how their bodies are built, their features, or their abilities.
17. Remember that fat is not a bad word
A few years ago a two-year-old girl I was nannying and I were at Target. Her mom was pregnant, and so she was very attuned to anyone else who might be as well. We were in an aisle with another woman, and my sweet toddler looked at her and said “There’s a baby in her belly!”. There was most certainly not a baby in this woman’s belly, and it was incredibly awkward. I said, quietly, “No honey, there isn’t. Do you want to help me pick out fruit snacks?”. My attempt to redirect failed. She looked at me and back to the woman and said, “Ohhhhh. Just fat”. I was mortified. Where had she learned that word? We were so careful not to talk about body size or weight around her. I nodded an apology to the woman and quickly left the aisle. Right there I needed to be very careful about how I corrected this little girl. The thing is, ‘fat’ is not a bad word. It should not be used as one. It’s a descriptor, but it doesn't need to be an insult. Fat is not the worst thing a person could be. I looked at her and said, “Sweetie, it’s not nice to comment on other people’s bodies. I know you weren’t trying to do anything wrong, but we don’t talk about how other people look”. It turned out she had learned the word fat from The Very Hungry Caterpillar. In her mind it wasn’t anything bad, it was just an adjective. When our kids say things that we as adults find embarrassing, it’s important that we don’t impart our prejudices onto them accidentally. It was still important for her to understand that it isn’t okay to talk about other people’s bodies but to also know that the issue was not with her saying fat because fat is not an insult.
That was a lot of information to take in, and you may now be thinking of ways in which you want to adjust your behavior and influence your kids. Remember not to feel guilty or get hung up on the past. Showing our kids we can forgive ourselves is another very valuable lesson. Not one of us is perfect (myself included) and we are all navigating child-rearing through our own issues and experiences. With new knowledge, we evolve our tactics. Focus on what you want to do differently, and continue to work towards that. Collectively, we can create an environment for our kids that is less nurturing to eating disorders and body image issues and understand those who struggle. There is already a much broader understanding of these problems than there was even 10 years ago, leading to earlier identification and better outcomes and treatment. We can all help improve the well-being of our kids, and ourselves, by evaluating and being conscious of our attitudes toward food and bodies.