Laura J. Kakaval, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University; Jacqueline Hayes, MD, Warren Albert School of Medicine at Brown University; Jennifer Mandelbaum, Master of Public Health, University of South Carolina; and Sherecce A. Fields, Ph.D., Texas A&M University
Focusing on healthy eating, exercise, and a positive body image is important for children’s mental and physical health. There are many ways you can support the healthy habits of your children and the rest of your family. Here are some things to consider.
Promote healthy habits for children and activity for the whole family
Although there are many cues in our environments for less healthy habits (eg: snack food advertisements), there are also many things parents can do, like focus on the things you can control.
- Help your child recognize hunger and fullness cues by eating when hungry and stopping when full. Don’t force them to be a member of the Clean Plate Club.
- Encourage independence and healthy choices by offering 2-3 options for a food or activity and letting your child choose (eg: “Would you like an apple or a granola bar for a snack?”).
- Eat meals and snacks, and encourage activity at consistent times each day.
- Focus on the health benefits of eating nutritious foods and being physically active (eg: “It is important to eat vegetables because they give our bodies the nutrients they need”, “Going for a bike ride helps to strengthen our bodies”).
- Make it fun! Find nutritious foods and exercise options that your child enjoys and encourage him to try new things.
- Avoid naming good and bad foods. Foods should not be banned. Instead, encourage moderation and set limits (eg: dessert every other day).
Set an example in behaviors and language
Parents play an important role in helping shape children’s body image and nutrition. Consider how you promote healthy eating and exercise for children, as well as the language you use to describe bodies and appearances. Healthy bodies can come in a variety of weights, shapes, and sizes. The goal is to promote acceptance of all body types.
- Role model being active and trying new foods
- Find exercises for children that your family might enjoy together (eg: walking, bike riding with the family)
- Avoid criticizing your appearance, your child’s appearance, or the appearance of others
- Focus on praising the positive aspects of your child (such as kindness, love of learning) that are not related to appearance
- Teach your child not to compare themselves to others (eg: normalizing differences)
Understand peer influence
While parents control much of childhood food choices, adolescence is a time of increased peer influence over decisions about healthy behaviors and lifestyles. As children progress into adolescence and adulthood, peers become more influential on body image attitudes as well as eating and physical activity behaviors.
- Listen to your child’s concerns about their appearance, size and shape. Help your child understand that different people’s bodies are different, especially during puberty when children develop at different times and rates. Help them learn not to compare their bodies to others.
- Talk to your child about ways to deal with bullying and teasing about weight. If your child is being bullied, consider contacting the school administration.
- Talk to your child about his friends’ perceptions of weight and diet. Work with them to confront the ideals of negative appearance.
- Sample standard food choices, eating patterns, and exercise.
Promote media culture
Parents and caregivers can help build children’s resilience against diet culture and support positive body image by teaching children media literacy. Media literacy involves “a critical examination of media messages that encourage risky behaviors, stereotypes, and social ideals.”
- Help children understand many of the images in advertisements that have been digitally altered (eg: they have filters or they use Photoshop) and do not represent the various shapes and sizes of the body in real life.
- Remember, social media often features a highlight clip of the “perfect” photos. The images you see may not provide the full story.
- In addition to the media they consume, you and your child can also think critically about the information they share via social media. For example, before posting a photo, you might ask yourself if it promotes a healthy body image.
- Control what content you and your child see. Block potentially triggering content, and unfollow accounts that make you feel bad. Follow body positivity accounts instead.
- Set limits around social media use. You might consider putting your phone and your child’s phone in a different room at certain times, such as before bedtime and during dinner. You can also set limits for using the app (here’s how to do it on iPhone).
It is normal and to be expected that there will be difficult times when working to change a healthy behavior. Practicing self-compassion is one way to help stay on track with goals, and most importantly it can have a positive impact on both physical and mental health.
- Be kind and understanding when you get off track with goals.
- We realize that everyone has challenges and setbacks along the way.
- Non-judgmental, for example, when you see your child trying to suppress or deny thoughts or feelings, help him acknowledge them and remind him that these thoughts do not define a person.
Finally, if you are concerned about an issue with your child’s body image, eating habits, or health, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
This article is a collaboration of SBM’s obesity and eating disorders and child and family health interest groups.
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