Parents are the most influential role models in a child’s life, they must be careful with their words and actions, especially around food and body image. This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, bringing awareness to the public about the over 24 million eating disorders in the US alone. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any identified mental illness, education is imperative.
As parents, you may not be able to prevent everything your children are exposed to, but you can create an environment that nourishes healthy bodies and attitudes about food instead of harmful messages about weight and dieting. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, nearly 80% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being overweight. This fear isn’t innate, but rather they are exposed to it by what they watch, their peers, and pressures or attitudes they observe by parents and adults.
Parents’ Fear of Fat
An overwhelming focus on diet and exercise can promote eating disorders in young kids. Eating Disorder Specialist Dr. Dina Zeckhausen advises parents on how to maintain a balance when teaching kids about healthy eating, and links future eating disorders to parents and societies views on “healthy” eating.
Research has found that a mothers’ concern about weight is actually the third leading cause of body image problems in adolescents and girls. Girls who believed their mothers wanted them to be thin, were two to three times more likely to worry about their weight. In society’s well-intended fight against obesity and GMO’s, many parents are sending the wrong messages to children, to obsess about food. How do you talk to kids about food, health, exercise and weight?
Avoid talking negatively about food. “There are too many carbs in that potato” or “That donut will be an hour at the gym.” It’s more important to teach the importance of healthy eating and exercise without references to weight. If you are on a diet or have food allergies explain this to your child “Mom’s stomach hurts when she eats gluten, so I am trying to eat more foods that make it feel better.” This does not imply that you are forcing them to have the same views.
Don’t use the F word. Even preschoolers know the F word- fat! It comes with a pretty negative connotation. “I feel so fat in these clothes.” Or “That meal was so fatting.” These are statements that little ones hear and don’t have the capacity to decipher between healthy or unhealthy ideals. They just absorb. Have a “No F Word” rule in your home and tell those that your child spends time with to kindly follow the rule.
Emphasize nourishment not numbers. Calories are energy, we need them to survive. Talk about portions not calories and be aware if your child begins to look at nutrition labels.
Be a role model. Let your children see you enjoying all food in reasonable portions and in the context of a nutritious diet. In fact, casually discussing diet plans or describing a desire to lose weight when you are with teens or children can negatively influence your child’s body image.
Check-in with yourself. Treating your own unhealthy body issues first can go a long way in helping your children prevent eating disorders and see themselves in a positive light. When these thoughts affect you, they are also a source of anxiety for your children. If you obsess about exercise, feeling guilty when you miss a gym session or beat yourself up for having a slice of pie, your children will pick up on your mentally unhealthy attitudes towards health. Seek out professional help from a nutritionist or therapist to help you help your child.
Don’t fat shame, weight shame, or categorize others by their weight. This sends the message that their weight is what you see, not their character.
Avoid categorizing foods as “good” or “bad”. Instead talk to your kiddos about what foods are and how they fuel our bodies. Even foods that cause an allergy should not be put in the “bad” category instead say, “your body doesn’t agree with them” and explain why. The word “bad” is interpreted as shame, and can stick with children even through adulthood.
Let your teens and children know that weight gain and changes to body shape are a natural part of the growing process. Educate them before puberty and explain how changing is normal. By books or take them to programs that help reinforce that they are developing as they should be. Research “puberty educators” or ask your schools guidance counselor who they recommend in the community to talk to you and your daughter or son.
Learn more and get involved by checking out NEDA’s page National Eating Disorder Awareness Week
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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is the clinical therapist for the Neurogistics Children’s Program. She has worked with Neurogistics for over a decade. Emily is also an award-winning author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, educational speaker and parenting consultant. Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.
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