Children and Body Image


A mom and daughter making muscles.All parents want their kids to grow up as happy and healthy as possible. Especially when it comes to the way they see and treat themselves; however, sometimes a parent doesn’t realize that by focusing too much on weight, calories, good and bad foods, or obsessive exercise, they may be unintentionally setting the stage for their children to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and body image.

As someone who personally struggled with weight, food, and exercise as a child, there are still times to this day that I have a hard time navigating those thoughts. Some things that happen in adulthood stem from childhood.

Now, having young children of my own, a girl and a boy, I try to be aware of how I speak about myself relating to my body, food, and exercise, and how I talk to them about it.

Here are some things I wouldn’t do to help ensure a positive body image and a healthy relationship with food and exercise now and as they age.

I wouldn’t put my kids on a diet.

I remember always trying to be on some diet when I had weight issues as a child. However, nothing stuck with me because it was too rigid and restrictive. If I veered off track, I would become obsessed and feel like a failure. What finally pushed me in the right direction was when my doctor explained that I could have more indulgent foods in moderation and focus more on balancing those foods with healthier choices. We don’t take away, we add.

Even though my children are at healthy weights, I don’t focus on that. Instead, I encourage them to engage in healthy lifestyle habits. This includes having a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables and ensuring they are active in sports or riding bikes. And when it comes to more indulgent, less healthy foods, balance and moderation is key.

I wouldn’t body shame myself, my kids, or anyone else.

Children are always watching and listening to their parents, whether you are aware of this or not. They mimic what their parents do and speak.

Rather than focusing on what is perceived as negative or not ideal, focus on the positive things you do for your health. This includes resting when our bodies are tired or drinking enough water so we don’t become dehydrated.

I wouldn’t make my kids finish their plates or restrict food.

This is something I am still working on with my kids. We are always taught that we need to eat all our food so it doesn’t go to waste, but by not forcing our children to do so, they can tune into their hunger cues, something far more valuable than leaving a few bites on the plate or saving it for later. What we can do instead is provide some meal structure as a guide.

Regarding food restriction, a child wants what they can’t have. They become fixated on it. If you say they can’t have dessert, dessert is all they will want. So, allow it in balance and moderation so it doesn’t become a “thing.” I’ve even heard of serving it with a meal, which isn’t considered a reward.

I wouldn’t categorize foods as “good” or “bad.”

This is a rule that even I must follow as an adult. There is so much noise, especially on social media, about particular foods, ingredients, or even categories of food such as dairy, for example. Putting foods into these categories makes us obsessed with perfect eating. The term for this is called orthorexia, which is an obsession with eating perfectly by some standards. And if we aren’t perfect, our thoughts and feelings about ourselves can spiral out of control.

Instead, use this as a lesson to teach children what each food can do for our bodies. Carbs give us energy. Protein helps build muscles. Healthy fats sharpen our brains.

And when we want to add more fun foods, we can say that these foods sometimes benefit our happiness and souls. If a chocolate chip cookie would make you emotionally happy, then it is ok to enjoy it. Having those “sometimes foods” will not throw off our health since most of the time, we are eating well.

I wouldn’t focus on calories or macros.

As I mentioned earlier, instead of focusing on the calories, sugar, or fat in a food, focus on what that food can offer and provide for your body. View the body as something to be cared for physically and emotionally.

It’s even helpful to make it into a game where the child can pick their veggie, fruit, protein, and carb, so each category is filled in. This understanding and control over their health is so important.

I wouldn’t use exercise as a form of punishment.

Everyone has done this at one time or another. You overeat and then punish yourself by running for an hour on the treadmill to burn off all those extra calories. This is such a detrimental way to view exercise.

Exercise should be something we do to get our blood flowing, to detox through sweating, for heart health, and to keep our muscles strong. It is a privilege to be able to move our bodies.

When we advocate enjoyable movement for ourselves and our children, exercise becomes natural to keep our bodies healthy, regardless of what we’ve eaten.

Being healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally is far more important and valuable than fitting into a certain body image or size. Strong and healthy is the new skinny. I suggest learning and teaching this lesson now rather than dealing with the consequences later.