“Is my kid eating enough?”
“Are my children having too much sugar?”
“My son is starting to become a really picky eater - is this normal?”
“My daughter stares in the mirror and complains about her appearance - how do I help her love her body (or at least not hate it!)?”
“I think my son is starving himself to lose weight – how did this happen?”
As a mother of two young daughters and a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist, I get asked these types of questions a lot, and the frustration and fear emanating from parents is palpable. It’s stressful raising kids in today’s world with the rampant mixed messages regarding food, health, and weight. What’s a parent to do? Not to mention that many parents have their own long-held struggles with food, and they certainly don’t want to pass this along to their kiddos.
Conversations about food, weight, and body image are, of course, complex and nuanced. These types of questions are not easily reduced to a three-sentence reply while sitting at a soccer game or eating a noisy dinner with friends. The truth is I could spend hours discussing the etiological factors that contribute to our complicated relationships with food, weight and with our bodies - the cultural, environmental and genetic factors at play… However, as a fellow parent, I know that while knowledge and understanding are undoubtedly important, we really want to know what to do and what to say (or in many cases, what not to say).
So, I’ve compiled the following list as a starting point for not only parents, but for anyone who wants to have more effective conversations and model healthier behavior regarding food and weight. This is for individuals who hope, as I do, that this next generation feels much more comfortable in their skin and in their bodies, and has significantly healthier relationships with food and weight, not ones marked by obsessive, yo-yo dieting or constant body shaming. Think of what this next generation could be capable of with a strong foundation of body acceptance and a more holistic, balanced approach to health!
10 Ways to Encourage Positive Relationships with Food, Weight & Body Image
1) Promote a diet-free zone in your home.
Diets can lead to eating disorders and other forms of disordered eating (Golden, Schneider, & Wood, 2016). Instead of focusing on weight loss or prohibiting certain foods in your home, focus on healthy behaviors, as opposed to an ideal weight as the metric for “perfect health”. Some people insist they aren’t dieters, but instead they just prefer to eat really “clean” or “super healthy”. There is nothing wrong with wanting to nourish your body with nutritious types of foods; however, what can be problematic is rigidly labeling certain foods as “bad” or “unacceptable/off-limits”. This rigidity and self-deprivation (when one truly does desire the particular food) actually causes the individual to obsess about the food even more and to often feel “out of control” around the food or when consuming it. I encourage an “all foods can fit” mentality, as well as an intuitive eating approach to food (www.intuitiveeating.org).
2) Honor your child’s (and your own) intuitive eater.
Honor your child’s natural cravings and affinities for various foods, and model this in your own eating behaviors. I advise parents not to encourage children to clean their plates, but rather to support them in checking in with their own hunger/fullness levels. As parents, we are in charge of the when and the what, in terms of mealtimes and menus. Our children are served well when they are in charge of the how much. (A quick note to be sure to include at least one thing that you know your child will eat at each meal). Be creative and offer variety, and don’t be afraid to keep returning to foods previously rejected. Also, try and make mealtimes as stress-free as possible. (I know any parents of toddlers or teenagers might be laughing right now! All I am saying is that this might not be the time to ask your older daughter about an upcoming test she is nervous about, or to bring up recent political news with your spouse…) Sometimes clients find it helpful to light a candle or listen to soft music- anything to elicit a sense of calm. Encourage mindful eating by dining at an actual table and turning off/putting away all electronics (cell phones buzzing or pinging with alerts in another room doesn’t count).
3) Know the warning signs of an eating disorder or disordered eating, and take steps as soon as you observe symptoms.
Address the root causes of disordered eating if you see them emerge- this can include trauma, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, a highly self-critical nature, low self-esteem, a lack of identity, a constant need for approval or achievement, etc. Eating disorders are truly just the tip of the iceberg; there is always something that underlies one’s struggle with food and the earlier we can catch these issues the better. Research supports that early intervention is crucial to an individual’s chance of recovery (Treasure & Russell, 2011).
(See #8, which is connected to this issue as well.)
** Visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/screening-tool for a brief eating disorder screening**
4) Own up to the way in which bodies and weight are discussed in your home.
Do you constantly comment on others’ appearances? Do you praise/criticize others for weight loss or gain? Do you obsess about your own body or weight? Think about how this could impact your child and what messages this sends.
5) Change your relationship with the scale.
Weight does not have to be THE metric for health and wellness. Again, focus on health-promoting behaviors: moving our bodies regularly, seeking regular health check-ups, attending to our emotional wellness and social support systems, eating a variety of foods that both nourish and bring enjoyment, etc. So many individuals allow their sense of self-worth and the trajectories of their days to be dictated by a number on the scale. They feel a sense of shame if the number is not where they think it should be. Try as best you can to look at weight as just a number, not a measure of goodness or worth. And if you have a pediatrician, or school, that overly focuses on weight and engages in any form of body shaming or weight stigma- get a new doctor or speak to your school administrators.
6) Emphasize self-worth outside of physical appearance.
This is particularly important for girls in the current state of our society. How often do we refer to girls as cute, pretty or beautiful, at the exclusion of other attributes? So many girls and women feel that to be perfect, they must also look perfect (and there is undoubtedly a ton of pressure to be perfect/to excel/to be superwoman in American culture). On this note, I think it’s particularly important to assess the types of books, movies, toys, etc., that children play with and are exposed to, in terms of what messages they send regarding female value and worth.
7) Celebrate beauty diversity.
Reclaim and redefine what beauty means to your family. Hopefully, your definition of beauty extends to different shapes, sizes, colors, with varying internal and external characteristics as well.. If it doesn’t, stretch yourself and broaden your horizons! Reflect this in your home, in your friend groups, and in your social media feeds. We are greatly shaped by what we are exposed to, what we choose to surround ourselves with, and by what gets exalted by the larger culture. Help shape the culture by making different, more intentional choices regarding beauty.
8) Prioritize emotional health.
Ask questions that invite further conversations with your children. Take the time to get to know their interests, their loves, their struggles and their fears. Be present (really present) when you interact with them, and sometimes realize they just need you to listen and validate their experiences (not go into “fixer” mode)…Validation just means saying “I see you, I see what you’re going through, and that must be so tough/painful/challenging…I’m here for you.” Normalize their feelings and encourage them to always reach out if they need support. Create a non-judgmental, understanding family culture by de-stigmatizing therapy and mental health struggles. I always tell clients that mental health check-ups should truly be the same as any type of physical check-up. If your kids know you highly prioritize mental health, are open to talking about it, and would encourage/support therapy (or another form of help), then they are much more likely to reach out.
9) Teach children about consent and body autonomy.
Encourage children to be in charge of their own bodies from a young age. If your kiddo doesn’t want to hug Aunt Bertha or Uncle Larry, I know it can be awkward for us as parents, but allow them to say no. With my daughters, I always provide other options, like, “Could you give them a high five or fist bump instead?” Within reason, I allow my children to make choices about how they want to wear their hair or what clothes they prefer. I am trying to honor their natural preferences, and to teach them to begin listening to and trusting themselves to make decisions. So many women and girls make choices based on others’ approval; they externalize their sense of worth, value, and control. And so many women and girls get pressured to do things with their bodies that they do not want to do. This topic may appear unrelated to issues of food, weight and body image, but it is actually inextricably linked. Being in charge of our bodies, as well as taking value and pride in them, can go a long way in creating a foundation of positive body image and self-worth.
10) Explore your own relationship with your body and food, and then DO the necessary work.
If you feel that your relationship with food, weight, and/or body image is problematic, negatively affecting your life and relationships, please talk to a qualified professional. You are not alone; in fact, millions of Americans struggle with disordered eating, weight battles, and negative body image. There is no shame in seeking help, and you could prevent your children from suffering similarly.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it is a great place to start. We all struggle with living in a society that body shames and promotes an incredibly narrow definition of beauty and health. However, I believe we can all do our part to shift the current culture, to reclaim our right to find peace and joy with our bodies and food. Just like we did as children, before we learned any differently.
Emily Ciepcielinski, PhD
Licensed Professional Counselor & Supervisor
Certified Eating Disorders Specialist
Golden, N. H., Schneider, M., & Wood, C. (2016). Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics,138(3). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1649
Treasure, J., & Russell, G. (2011). The case for early intervention in anorexia nervosa: Theoretical exploration of maintaining factors. British Journal of Psychiatry, 199(1), 5-7. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.087585