Many moms have been on a diet, felt insecure about their appearance or tried to change something about themselves because sometime during childhood we got the message that we just didn’t size up. And it’s no surprise that children who have a negative view of their bodies are at increased risk for low self-esteem, eating disorders, and other destructive behaviors down the line.
But there’s good news. There are strategies you can take to build your daughter or son’s positive body image before they even take their first steps. Here are six of them:
Newborns are fascinated by their fingers and toes and as they grow, they become even more interested in what their bodies can do. “Just watch a toddler or a young child, and you will see the joy they experience in their body as they clap their hands, toddle around, skip, run, or dance,” according to Judith Matz, a licensed clinical social worker and co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care. When your child is just a baby, Matz says you can help him or her develop “body esteem,” simply by rolling, tickling, and dancing with him. Plus, being physical active yourself and as a family are great ways to model a healthy lifestyle.
Women who are emotionally supported by their families and don’t feel pressure to fit the “thin and beautiful” ideal have a positive body image of themselves, according to a new study published in the journal Sex Roles. “Family support is one of the most important factors as it buffers the negative impact of sociocultural pressure, which directly impacts body image,” according to Dr. Shannon Snapp, the study’s lead author.
Create a healthy relationship with food.
You can prepare healthy meals for your baby or toddler, but teaching healthy eating habits is just as important. So rather than reaching for a cookie to soothe a scratched knee, put the emphasis on food as fuel. “There are ways to reflect back the choices they’re making that teach them to trust their bodies and keep that connection that you eat when you’re hungry and you stop when you’re full,” according to Matz, who suggests telling your child “your tummy is hungry,” and “your tummy is full.” Or if your toddler reaches for chicken, say “your body wants protein.”
Don’t talk about your weight.
Talking about your weight and dieting should be off limits in front of your child, according to Matz. “Your child will pick up those messages that food is something to worry about and that you have to try to change your body,” she said. Also, be conscious about the comments you make about others. “When we’re criticizing other people concerning their appearance, our kids take in how important appearance is,” Matz said.
Don’t talk about your child’s weight.
Ten percent of children ages 2 through 5 are obese, according to The National Center for Health Statistics, but talking about your child’s weight can actually do more harm than good in the long run. “When you comment about your child’s body, they take in those messages, and they’re hard to undue,” Matz said. Instead, recognize and teach your child that people come in all shapes and sizes. “So if they do have a body that’s considered not the ideal, that they feel accepted at least by their parents because they’ll have plenty to deal with out in the world.”
Think before you speak.
According to Mary Joe Rapini, an intimacy and relationship psychotherapist, fathers who call their daughters “beautiful” or “princess,” can actually negatively impact the way she views her body down the line. “Whatever parents praise, the child understands that’s important, ” she said.
It’s OK to occasionally tell your children how pretty or handsome they look, but focusing more
on their good qualities and positive experiences is a better way to help them build confidence and a strong sense of self.
Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, food and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.