Weight-related problems—and their close cousin, poor body image—are fed by many factors: the genetics and timing of puberty, how kids’ peers eat, vending machines at school, PE and extracurricular sports (or lack thereof), the attitudes of coaches, messages from the media—just to name a few. It would be hard to track or control or even catalog all the different factors that influence kids’ weight and how they see their bodies.
But research clearly indicates ways that we parents influence our children’s weight and body images. Here are five things we can do to help.
1. Don’t diet ourselves, and don’t put kids on diets. I’ve written about why here. Instead we can teach kids how to eat healthfully. We can also actively teach kids how to break bad habits and start new ones as they relate to food and exercise.
A zero tolerance statement around dieting is necessary to prevent the harm that can befall teens who try to diet for weight loss. This means we have this conversation: “In this family, we don’t diet.” We don’t count calories, especially in front of our kids, ever. And we explain to kids the reasons why.
2. Pay attention to our eating, literally. If “eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full” is the best advice, we need to both notice when we are hungry and full, and actually act on those cues. That means that we can’t eat breakfast standing up while signing the permission slips; we can’t eat lunch while checking email; we can’t eat dinner while watching TV. When we do these things, we aren’t paying attention to the food that is going into our bodies.
I try to practice eating mindfully, and I’ve taught my children to do this, as well. We start each dinnertime by eating in silence for one minute. This helps us all slow down and tune in to our food and our bodies. (Have a hard time with this one? I’ve taken great inspiration from Geneen Roth’s book Women Food and God.)
3. Pay attention to our kids’ happiness. Researcher Dianne Neumark-Sztainer writes that “both low self-esteem and depression can increase your teenager’s risk for unhealthy dieting and the development of an eating disorder or for over-eating and excessive weight gain.”
A key factor here is about helping our kids develop an identity beyond their looks (we also need to have this identity ourselves!). A great way to do this is by using growth-mindset praise with our kids—around things other than their looks.
4. Create a safe space. The world is a tough place to feel good about yourself if you aren’t airbrushed perfect. Kids need a place to feel comfortable and loved unconditionally, without regards to their weight. This means creating a safe zone at home that is as media-free as possible—record TV shows so that you can cut out the ads, and ban teen and women’s magazines that set impossible-to-achieve standards.
We also need to watch what we parents say in this safe zone. Although we are always trying to be helpful, a lot of what we parents say to our children can do more harm than good. It can be damaging to say negative things about our own bodies, or other people’s bodies. And it isn’t helpful when we say things that might (unintentionally) shame our children, like: “I think you’ve had enough,” or “You certainly don’t need dessert,” or “Are you really going to order that? Do you know how many calories that has?”
All of these tips are essentially about setting a good example. We know that what our kids see us doing makes a difference—they are likely to do what we do.
So even though we may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the obesity epidemic, or unrealistic media portrayals of women, or by our own desire to have children who are neither too fat nor too thin, we can each help by starting right under our own roofs, one meal at a time.
Which of these tips is the hardest for you and your family?
© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.