We as parents need to be aware that our kids are very susceptible to poor body image, disordered eating behaviours and worse, full-blown Eating Disorders—which by the way, can be deadly. Eating Disorders, disordered eating patterns, and body image issues are serious business and they are more prevalent than ever in our society today. Kids as young as 5 years old are showing signs of distorted body image, largely due to mainststream attitudes towards food and weight and the intense societal pressure to look a certain way in order to be "good enough."
According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, a 2002 survey showed that about one third of grade 9 and grade 10 girls have engaged in weight loss behaviours and almost half of girls in the same age group perceived themselves as too fat, even if their weight was within a healthy BMI range. In another study, more than 1/2 of girls and 1/3 of boys engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors (e.g., fasting, vomiting, laxatives, skipping meals or smoking to control appetite).
This is scary.
There are many resources out there to educate us as parents on how to instill positive body image and confidence in our kids from an early age and how to prevent Eating Disorders. Body Image Survival Guide For Parents is an amazing book written by Marci Warhaft-Nadler, a Body Image Specialist, which focuses on answering tough questions that we as parents and our kids face with respect to body image and self-esteem in a world filled with adverse messages around food, and weight. Her book is full of hands-on tips and activities for families, real questions and answers, helpful resources and strategies to spot warning signs of dangerous behaviours at an early age. I recommend this book to all parents of both girls and boys, and I will most certainly be using the tips and strategies within it with my own family and within my practice for years to come. The National Eating Disorder Information Centre's website (www.nedic.ca) is a great resource too.
Here are 5 tips for parents on how to prevent disordered eating behaviours and negative body image in their kids:
Instead of telling your daughter how beautiful she is all of the time, try telling her how proud you are of her for working hard in school or trying out a new sport. Tell your son that you are so proud of him for trying new foods and that eating properly will help him have more energy during hockey practice, instead of saying that it will help him grow big muscles. Focusing on your children's appearance (positive or negative) will only encourage them to be more pre-occupied with their own body and appearance.
Model healthy eating habits. Try to steer clear of "diet" foods and enjoy a good balance of fruits and veggies, whole grains, meats and alternatives, and dairy products. Show your kids that it's normal to eat a variety of foods at meal times, instead of opting only for salad. Don't forbid "fun" foods (treat foods) because they are "bad" for you. Enjoy fun foods in moderation and explain that every food can fit. Try not to label foods as "good" or "bad".
Teach your kids to follow their natural hunger and fullness cues. Praise them for listening to their tummies first and foremost and let know that they can always have more later at snack time or at the next meal. Don't pressure them to clean their plates—instead, encourage them to eat until their tummies are satisfied. Offer a variety of foods at each meal time (at least 3-4 different foods) and encourage them to try new foods in a non-pressured way.
Avoid scrutinizing yourself or your body, especially in front of your children. Saying things like "I'm so fat" or "I really need to go on a diet" or "my thighs are so big" is not sending positive body image messages to your kids, nor is it doing you any good. Instead, focus on positive aspects of yourself and your body, such as "I'm really liking my new haircut" or "I think that this shirt really brings out the blue in my eyes." If you notice that your kids are engaging in negative self-talk, switch it around and focus on something positive. For example, if your daughter says that her legs are too big, reply by saying "you're still growing—your legs will grow taller as you grow taller." Or "your legs are strong and allow you to do the activities that you love to do." You could also mention how cool her new jacket looks on her or how you love the way she curled her hair today.
If you notice that your child has become pre-occupied with his or her appearance or weight, has started skipping meals, has suddenly started restricting their food intake, or has started dieting, don't ignore it or turn a blind eye. These are signs that she or he is experiencing body image issues or has even started engaging in unhealthy or disordered eating patterns. Talk to your kids and allow them to feel comfortable opening up to you about how they are feeling.