Help Your Kids Develop a Positive Body Image: What to Say and Do
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a great time for parents to think about how they can help their kids feel good about themselves and their bodies. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of kids are self-conscious about some aspect of their physical appearance and that negative body image issues affect even kids as young as 3 years old. There’s a lot you can say and do to nurture a positive body image. Here’s what the experts suggest:
Value All Bodies
The first and most important thing is to make your kids value all bodies. Explain to them, says Sumner Brooks, a registered dietician and author of How to Raise an Intuitive Eater, that “bodies come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes [and that] there isn’t one good way to have a body.”
Joslyn Smith of the National Eating Disorders Association puts it even more pointedly: Tell your kids that “all bodies – including yours – are good bodies.”
Love the Body You’re In
You can inspire your kids to love their own bodies by asking them “what they like about their body and why,” says Diana Chillo-Havercamp, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in working with children. This could be anything from how their eyes, ears, and noses let them experience the world in different but exciting ways to the beauty of the color of their skin.
“A regular practice of saying affirmations,” notes Ana Reisdorf, a registered dietician, “can reduce negative self-talk and build your children’s confidence.”
Focus on What Bodies Can Do
Another way to cultivate a positive body image is to “teach children to appreciate bodies for what they can do rather than how they look,” says Dr. Amy Slater, a clinical psychologist and one of the leading researchers on body image issues. Instead of asking them whether they think they’re too thin or too thick – and how they ideally would like to look – talk to them about all the things they can do and would like to do with their bodies, whether it’s riding a bike, learning a cool dance, mastering skateboarding or becoming a better swimmer. These conversations will make them feel good about themselves and inspire them to try to stay healthy and strong.
Promote a Guilt-Free Relationship with Food
It’s also important to promote a guilt-free relationship with food. Instead of telling your kids to only eat “good” nutritious food and avoid all “bad” junk food, which isn’t realistic or sustainable, teach them to listen to their bodies and don’t eat any more than they need. Kids need to learn, as Dr. Renee Engeln, a professor of psychology, puts it, “to listen to their bodies’ own cues about hunger and satiety.”
To do that, says Milda Zolubaite, a registered nutritionist, never tell your kids that they need to clean their plates. Instead, “promote eating until full versus eating until all food is consumed,” says Dr. Sasha Ulrich, a family physician.
Encourage Physical Exercise
Encourage your kids to be active and exercise. “Physical activity, even a 10-minute walk,” says Dr. Angela Celia Doyle, a clinical psychologist, “has been shown in research to improve body image.” Make sure, though, that you suggest physical exercise as a way to stay healthy and strong rather than to lose weight.
Model a Positive Body Image
Kids look to adults for guidance on how to feel about themselves and their bodies, and no adults are more influential to kids than their parents. Try to cultivate a positive body image yourself and project that image to your kids.
Teach Your Kids Media Literacy
Despite best efforts to nurture and project a positive body image, chances are that your kids will be influenced by the super-skinny bodies they see on TV and social media. Explain to them that many of these images are digitally altered and edited and that, even when the images are real, they don’t necessarily represent healthy bodies that they should try to copy.
“Help your child become a savvy media critic,” says Dayle Hayes, a registered dietician, “by talking about bodies on television, in magazines and on the internet.”
Also, encourage your kids to read books with a body positive message. Well-known titles include All Bodies are Good Bodies by Charlotte Barkla and Erica Salcedo, Beautifully Me by Nabela Noor and Nabi Ali, and Love Your Body by Jessica Sanders and Carol Rossetti.
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at The City University of New York – Brooklyn College.