Healthy Body Image In Children
This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I have had close family members who have born this struggle, and I have also had the experience of working as a mental health professional with this population for 5+ years, so this is an issue that is near and dear to my heart.
Eating disorders are not really about food. They typically manifest themselves because someone perceives themselves as “too this” or “not enough that”, or there is some extraneous situation that the person feels is “eating away at them.” Food becomes the tool used to control a seemingly uncontrollable situation. It simultaneously becomes the enemy and the weapon to lash out (either consciously or subconsciously) against a bad self perception.
I have had ED patients as young as 10 and as old as 70. Breaking the cycle of negative self messages can be excruciatingly hard to do, especially if those messages have been on repeat for the majority of someone’s life. So, here are a few things we can do to foster a healthy body image and self-worth in our children:
- Stress the importance of being healthy with your kids. Not necessarily being thin. Teach healthy eating habits from the beginning (introducing appropriate food and portion sizes), and tell your kids why certain foods are good to nourish the different parts of their bodies.
On the flip side, teach your kids that it’s perfectly ok, within the context of a broader healthy diet, to indulge in a treat every now and then. Not every cookie, brownie, or ice cream cone is going to cause a major problem. We’ve all heard the saying, “A moment on the lips, straight to the hips!” but think about what that might mean to your kids if they hear that while leaving the ice cream parlor – “Sugar is bad. The fun time we had is ultimately going to make me fat. Pleasurable things are not good for me.” We have to jump on the “healthy bandwagon” ourselves and be prepared to lead by example.
- Take a mental inventory about how our own “negative thought reel” is perceived by your kids. This is what I mean: Do you have days where you say, “Uh! I feel so fat today!”? Even if you feel that way, do not say it in front of your children.
Do you have a scale in your home? Why? Unless you are on a major weight-loss journey and are monitoring your progress, there is really no reason to own a scale (in my humble opinion). Most likely, that number on the scale is not going to be what you want it to be anyway, so gauge your health success more on how you feel, how your clothes fit, and on exercise and nutrition goals.
Do you send loving messages to yourself throughout the day, or do you beat yourself up about the way you look, your weight, those 15 lbs of baby weight that is still hanging around, your inability to get on some sort of exercise regimen? How would it make you feel if your kids had those same messages running through their mind?
- This one is SO hard, but it’s probably the most important. Teach your kids how to resolve conflict in a healthy way. If an issue has arisen, address it immediately. Don’t let negativity, separation, and manipulation linger in your home. This topic should probably be a whole article on its own!
- Ok, ladies, hand the computer over to your husband for this one. Daddies, this is a task that only you can accomplish. As hard as we Moms can try, we will never take your place in this one. If there isn’t a Dad present in the home, try to get another strong male figure (grandfather, uncle, etc.) to fill this role.
Here it is: Tell your daughter that she is beautiful (every day, several times a day). Tell her that her heart is more precious than gold, and you will never ever leave her. Be the leader in teaching your daughter to be self-confident and modest in how she dresses. Let her hear you tell her mother she is beautiful (every day, several times a day, and especially when we obviously don’t feel or look particularly beautiful by society’s standards). Tell your sons that they are strong, adequate, and that they have a mission to protect everything that is good, true, and beautiful (every day, several times a day).
Drill positive messages into your kid’s heads. Even when correcting them, use “the PNP strategy” when disciplining them (start with a positive, say the negative, and end with a positive).
Below is a picture of the coolest t-shirt ever (my sister gave it to me several years ago). When you look at it head-on it’s hard to tell what it says because the message is written backwards. But, when you look in the mirror, it says “love yourself.” A friendly reminder that we are loveable, deserving of all good things, and that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. So, this week especially, but all the time, be kind and gentle to yourself, give yourself a break, and pray that your kids can do the same!