How to Encourage Your Kid to Have a Good Relationship With Food and Their Body
Your kids are always listening. They hear the words you say and the way you say them, whether it’s to yourself or about someone else. They read your body language and soak in every detail, and knowing this is truly a gift. Because as role models to our children, we can demonstrate and encourage positive body image and self-confidence, which can help protect them from the harm diet culture can cause.
We asked experts for advice on how to promote body positivity and acceptance and how we can prevent our children from feeling bad about their bodies. To be honest, many of us parents could stand to hear this advice, too!
How to Talk About Your Own Body in Front of Your Kids
“We all have our own beliefs about appearance, weight, and shape. It’s important to think about how your attitudes and beliefs may influence the way your child sees their own body,” said Rebecca Manley, MS, CTC, CCTP, founder of MEDA (Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association), who’s certified in cognitive behavioral therapy. She added that while it can be hard to feel positive about the way you look all the time, try not to criticize your appearance and say things like, “I’m so fat,” or, “I hate how my butt looks in these leggings,” as this may encourage your child to be critical of their own appearance.
“If a young girl constantly sees her mother picking herself apart, pointing out her flaws, or complaining about her weight, it teaches the daughter that bodies are filled with problems to be fixed,” said certified intuitive-eating counselor and registered dietitian Lauren Cadillac, RD, CPT. “I work with so many women now who have been dieting for years and are trying to heal their relationship with food. Many have early memories of their mother being on a diet and constantly trying to lose weight,” she said. In order to promote body positivity, we need to stop pointing out our flaws.
“Cutting out negative self-talk can go a long way,” agreed registered dietitian Mindy Black, MS, CSSD. If you slip and say something negative about yourself, always follow it up with something positive.
If you want to talk about your appearance when your child is around, try to be positive and praising, Manley suggested. This may be as simple as finding one aspect of your body you like or find useful and mentioning it in front of your child. Say things like, “I love my legs, they are strong.” She said, “If it feels too hard to be positive, you can be neutral,” and say things like, “My legs help me to run and play with you.”
You don’t always have to comment about how you look to promote body positivity. Manley said, “Praise yourself in areas not related to appearance in front of your child, so they learn that there are many ways to be valued.” You can say things like, “I’m a good listener,” “I’m a good friend,” or “I’m an excellent cook.”
It’s important to remember that whatever you say about one body – your own, someone’s on TV, someone in the grocery store – you are saying about all bodies, added registered dietitian Brenna O’Malley, creator of the health blog The Wellful. Your message matters, so teach your kids about body diversity. Encourage them to see and know that it’s normal for bodies to be different shapes and sizes and that bodies change, grow, and look different throughout life. “If you’re struggling with your own body image, working on this for yourself will not only help you but can also set an example for your children,” she said.
How to Talk About Your Child's Body to Promote Body Positivity
“The most important thing is to give children the message that they are more than their body. They have a body, but they aren’t just a body,” Manley said. Teach your children that how they look isn’t the most important or most interesting thing about them, Cadillac added. Talk about all the inner qualities that make them special, Manley said.
“Open dialogue for your child to share their experience in their body,” O’Malley said. Each of our experiences is unique, so allowing them to share what it feels like for them to be in their body can be helpful for both of you. Have them notice or share parts of their body they like, but also encourage them to feel excited about things that are beyond what their body looks like.
We can teach them to be thankful for their bodies or speak gratitude over their body with little games like: I love my ____ because ____, Cadillac said. For example: “I love my arms because I can hug you with them,” “I love my belly because it holds all the yummy food I eat,” or “I love my legs because they can ride a bike to my friend’s house.”
It’s important to explain to your children regularly that as we grow, we change in many ways but are always the same person deep inside, Black said. Focusing on how amazing their bodies are and how blessed they are to have certain strengths, turning the focus to what they can do, will help encourage body positivity as they grow.
How to Handle Other People Making Negative Comments About Their Bodies
It happens so often where a relative or mom friend will say things like, “Oh, I need to lose this belly I gained over winter,” or, “I shouldn’t eat that because I’ll balloon up.” When your child hears comments like that, they’ll think it’s OK to talk badly about ourselves, and then they’ll start to criticize their own bodies or think they need to restrict the food they eat to lose weight.
When you hear comments like that, if you feel bold enough, you could say something like, “In our family, we don’t say negative things about our bodies.” Or you can counter their statement with something lighthearted or a compliment like, “Your body is perfect just the way it is,” or, “You can trust your body to know what and how much food it needs,” and turn to your children and say, “Right?” Or Manley suggested having the person model what you teach your kids and say, “Name one thing you like about your body or one thing you’re good at.”
Depending on how comfortable you feel around the person making the comment, you can always pull the person aside and ask that they not make comments like that around your children, Cadillac suggested. Black also said to follow up with your kids after the interaction and talk to them about how some people feel badly about their weight or how they look, but that it’s the kind of person they are that’s most important.
How to Teach Your Child to Be Body Positive About Themselves
Children who are confident and have good feelings about themselves are less likely to develop body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, so “make your home a place where bodies are appreciated for what they can do, not just how they look,” Manley explained. Support from parents plays an important role in building self-esteem in children. When they feel loved, listened to, understood, and encouraged by their parents, they are more likely to feel good about themselves.
Fostering a positive, open relationship with your child is so important. “Accept your child as they are, regardless of their weight, size, or shape. Don’t compare your child’s height or weight to those of their siblings or others,” Manley said. “Tell them you love them often and unconditionally. Remind your child you love them for who they are inside, not because of external appearances.”
It’s OK to make positive comments about your child’s appearance as long as you balance it with emphasizing other positive qualities like their kindness, empathy, sense of humor, strengths, and achievements. Compliment your child when they do kind things for themselves and others, and encourage them to speak positively about themselves, Manley said.
“Support your child’s interests, even if they aren’t traditional male or female activities,” Manley said. Support their uniqueness and their individual choices, and celebrate their achievements. Make it clear they won’t be more likable, happier, or more successful if they are a different shape, if they lose weight, or if they eat less. “Instead, help your child develop values that link personal worth to qualities such as kindness,” Manley said. Teach children that everyone is unique, all bodies are different, and that’s a good thing, Cadillac said.
What to Do If You Hear Your Child Talking Negatively About Their Body
As early on as possible, make it clear that your family values include talking respectfully about your own bodies and the bodies of others, Manley said. This means it’s not OK to talk about someone’s appearance or body in a negative way, including their own.
If your child is talking negatively about their own body, listen and ask questions. It’s important to keep an open dialogue with your child about bodies, so you can say something like, “I noticed you were talking negatively about your body. I’m here if you want to talk about how you’re feeling or have any questions,” O’Malley said. Don’t argue with your child or dismiss concerns, as this invalidates their feelings, Manley said.
Ask them questions like: “How long have you felt this way? Did something happen to make you feel this way? Did someone say something about your body? When or where do you feel this way? How can I help you?” This is a great time to remind your child that it’s natural for bodies to grow and change shape as they get older, especially during puberty. Genetics also play a huge role in our height and weight, everyone looks different, and our uniqueness is what makes us special, Cadillac said.
How to Talk to Your Child About Dieting
It’s never too early to foster your child’s positive relationship with food, Cadillac said. Lead by example by cooking and eating healthy meals together that include an abundance of veggies and fruits and not a lot of processed foods. Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad,” but instead explain how eating healthy foods will make them feel energetic and prevent them from getting sick. Also teach them that balance is important, which means enjoying treats, too.
Teach them that food is nourishing and enjoyable, and use mealtimes to discuss relaxing, pleasant topics like something funny that happened that day or something they’re excited to do tomorrow. Show how important it is to listen to their hunger and fullness clues, Cadillac said. Don’t use food as a reward or a punishment, and try not to make comments about how much they’re eating or make them “clean their plate” – trust that they can honor their own body’s needs.
Be mindful of the messages you could be sending that may support diet culture. Are you counting calories, restricting carbs, yo-yo dieting, exercising off food, using food as a reward, or flipping through beauty magazines that flaunt “perfect” bodies? Your child will pick up on that. If you’re struggling with your own relationship with food and your body, working with an intuitive-eating registered dietitian can help you take on the healthy habits you want to model for your kiddos to prevent them from getting sucked down the dieting hole.
If your child is old enough, talk openly about how some people think bodies should look a certain way or be a certain size and that some people will do harmful things to their bodies, just so they can look that way. Talk about the dangers of dieting and how it can lead to binge-eating or other eating disorders, depression, fatigue, and ultimately long-term weight gain, Manley said. Explain why it’s so important to fuel themselves properly, so they can do the things they love and be healthy.
How to Promote Intuitive Eating and Healthy Movement
Children learn by observing, so Cadillac said it’s so important for us as parents to model healthy relationships with food, our bodies, and exercise. Black agreed and said, “Kids not only pick up on what we say but also what we do.” Have your children see you exercise, not to burn calories or lose weight, but to be healthy and strong. Participate in exercise with them, try a Cosmic Kids Yoga class on YouTube, or go for a family hike or bike ride.
Try not to teach your kids that foods are “good” or “bad,” Cadillac said. If you want to promote things like fruits or vegetables, say things like, “Carrots help our eyes to see,” so they learn about how food can nourish their body. If you teach children that certain foods are bad, they’ll think that they are bad for eating that food. “This thought process easily carries into adulthood and can become quite destructive,” she added.
Also avoid making any foods completely restricted (unless it’s for health reasons, such as allergies). Cadillac said the more off-limits we make something, the more we want it. By telling your children they can’t have a certain food, it just makes them want it more. They might start to sneak food or get it at school when you aren’t around. As a parent, it’s your job to provide variety for your child, and if we try to manipulate our child’s eating, it robs them of valuable life experiences.
Instead of good and bad foods, teach your kids about true hunger and fullness, Black said. Ask them if their tummy is growling, if they’re low on energy, or if they’re “hangry,” and share that you’re familiar with all of those feelings. Help them notice that they feel better eating certain foods over others. Have your child see you eat salad, or a burrito, or brownies, showing that all foods fit into a balanced diet.
“If we eat intuitively, and engage in movement we enjoy, our kids will pick up on that,” Cadillac said. Take pride in being a positive role model for your children, so they can enjoy a life filled with celebrating their bodies, loving food, and appreciating joyful movement.