Tough Talks: How to Have a Positive Influence on Your Child’s Body Image

It seems everywhere you look there’s a message about bodies. We talked to some of our Parent Toolkit experts to get their advice on how you can be a positive influence on your child’s body image, whether your child is male or female, underweight, overweight or average.

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It seems everywhere you look there’s a message about bodies. Whether it’s song lyrics talking about “big booty” or the models in fashion magazines, messages and images about the definition of beauty are all around us. And it’s not just adults who are hearing it. Every day your child, daughter or son, is exposed to similar messages. We all want our children to grow up with a healthy view of themselves, both in appearance and self-worth. But how can you, as a parent, compete with all the messages your child hears outside home? We talked to some of our Parent Toolkit experts to get their advice on how you can be a positive influence on your child’s body image, whether your child is male or female, underweight, overweight or average.

Learn more about ways you can nurture your child's social and emotional well-being.

You can begin to combat the external messages by talking about body image from an early age. Kansas City-based pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert recommends you start by asking them “What is pretty?” and “What is handsome?” Then, you can give them your definitions for the words.

“Based on what they say, you have lots of discussions and opportunities to reframe positive body image,” says Dr. Burgert. “If they describe a real person you can say ‘yes, Daddy is handsome, but isn’t he also kind? He takes care of our family, that’s what makes him handsome to me.’”

If your child describes a fictional character, point out qualities like bravery or courage that the character shows rather than just external qualities. With small conversations like these started at an early age, you can help frame how your child views beauty.

Overwhelmingly, our experts agree that the number one thing you can do to instill a positive body image for your child is to pay close attention to what you are saying. Yes, you. As parents and caregivers, your child takes cues from you from the time they’re young children to the time they’re entering adulthood, even if at that point they don’t admit it.

“I think we confuse attention with influence. Even though a middle schooler doesn’t give you attention, it doesn’t mean you don’t have influence,” says Dr. Burgert. “If mom is looking in the mirror and saying ‘I’m too fat,’ the kids will do that too.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control survey of high school students, 19 percent of girls said they didn’t eat for 24 hours or more in order to lose weight or to keep from gaining weight. For boys, that number is 7 percent.

Parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba recommends keeping an eye on your child’s online behaviors, from what photo she decides to post on social media to the websites she’s visiting.

“We often overlook their Instagram or Facebook account,” Dr. Borba says. “I don’t think parents are aware of what they’re looking at.”

Some adolescents visit pro-ana (pro-anorexia) or pro-mia (pro-bulimia) websites to find tips and support to drive disordered eating. As research for this article, our team did a search on Instagram with the hash tag #ana, #mia and #thinspo (for thin inspiration). The results were telling. Page after page revealed images of extremely thin women and girls. Some were images of models, while others were selfies. One even asked for “likes” on the page, and said for each “like” she received, she wouldn’t eat for 4 hours.

So what should you say if you notice your child may be losing weight or seems to have a different approach at the dinner table than before? School counselor Dr. Shari Sevier recommends coming from a place of concern and pointing out what you’ve noticed as a way to get the conversation going. Start with “I’ve noticed that you’ve…”

“Tell them about your concern, and then go to the doctor,” says Dr. Sevier. “With eating disorders you need a multiple team approach and need professionals.”

“Having an unhealthy body image is irregardless of weight,” Dr. Burgert points out. “It’s more conceptual and more broad about a healthy body image and self-esteem.”

And Dr. Burgert has a point. While research shows as many as 10 in 100 young women in the United States have an eating disorder, more than one in three children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012. Children who are overweight from a young age have a higher risk for developing chronic diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It can be a hard conversation to start, as becoming obese doesn’t happen overnight. Pounds get put on over the course of weeks, months, and even years, but the best approach is to not single out an overweight child.

“My most successful families are the ones who took this on as a family issue,” says Dr. Burgert. “We’re not making you run on the treadmill while we all sit on the couch and eat Cheetos. We’re all going to eat healthy and go on walks together. It’s not a negotiation, it’s a whole family change.”

In order to get the whole family involved, Dr. Borba recommends getting your kids involved in food preparation, grocery shopping, and cooking. You can even use a “green, yellow, red” way to categorize foods for your family. Green means “go” - these include vegetables and fruits essentially foods that are O.K. to eat all the time. Yellow are the “slow down” foods, or foods that can be eaten sometimes but not all the time, like refined grains. Red foods should be eaten very infrequently, like a piece of cake once a week.

“Go ahead and print out recipes that would fall into the green or yellow category and make your own cookbook,” Dr. Borba says. Choose those recipes with your children and have them help you shop and prepare the meal so they are invested as well.

It’s not always an easy thing to do, but your influence on your child can be the key to a healthy body image.

“So many of us as adults have so many emotions about our own body image and it’s hard not to translate that on,” says Dr. Burgert. “Talk about how proud you are of your accomplishments, like ‘I read really well’ or ‘I helped that person,’ rather than ‘I look great.’ You need to start with you.”

This is the third post in our week-long series — Tough Talks— where we’ve surveyed a handful of our Parent Toolkit experts to see what they recommend for parents to make tough conversations go more smoothly. Tomorrow we’ll tackle the topic of mental health.

If you or someone you know needs help or would like more information about the issue, please call the National Eating Disorders Hotline at 1-800-931-2237 or visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.