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How to Help Kids Accept their Bodies

Including tips on what to say and how to act with your kids when it comes to body.

Bubbles under water
Photo credit: Julianne Liebermann
 

Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.

(from Daring Greatly by Brene Brown)


Not long ago, I went out to dinner some friends. One of them said her 8 year old daughter does not want to wear shorter shorts this summer. Her daughter told her, ‘my thighs are too big for shorter shorts’. When asked by others at the table what she said in response, she responded, ‘I told her that she looks fine. That she should not be concerned about how she looks.’


I’m sure we’ve all been there with our kids. Or, maybe we are a teacher or coach or grandparent and respond in this way as well.


We want to reassure kids and in doing so, reassure ourselves.


And yet, reassurance comes up short in helping children create a sense of acceptance around their bodies. We avoid the problem hiding underneath the body image concerns. The insecurity and struggle for belonging and self-worth.

We do not validate. Instead put on a band aid.


Today, my aim is to share information on body image parenting (which can be applied for anyone interacting with kids!) and tips for how to create a body accepting culture.


 

What are the drivers of body image?


I have written about what body image is and how embodiment is important to working through body image. Hopefully these were helpful for your own journeys.


Now, to understand how to help children, I will explain some of the drivers of the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behaviors that impact body image.


We know from the literature that the following affect kids’ body image:

  • Weight stigma, of which bullying is part. Weight-based bullying (which happens online, not just in school) is the most common bullying among kids in the US and it is also recognized to be a problem internationally. Weight/appearance-based bullying can lead to increased risk for eating disorders, substance use, self-harm and suicide. For kids, weight stigma takes many forms. It can be a doctor recommending a kid go on a restrictive diet, an athletic team not having all sizes of uniforms available to kids on a team or a school not having desks of the right size for all students.

  • Diet culture, do I need to say more here? We swim in it every day - the constant pressure to lose weight, to optimize or hack ourselves for something called ‘health’, to take up less space, etc, etc.

  • Trauma, which impacts how we feel in our bodies and about our bodies. When kids experience trauma, studies show that children’s body satisfaction decreases. Other studies show that trauma creates a dis-embodiment of sorts, which makes sense. Why be in your body if there is so much pain there?

  • Racism, also a form of trauma, can increase allostatic load. This is the cumulative burden of stress over time. This chronic stress can affect how kids feel about their appearance.

  • Adolescence is a time of huge change - socially, physically and psychologically. During this time, there is a desire to belong. Social mirroring, this effort to be acceptable and laudable to others shows up. Especially with social media. In fact, research shows that time spent on social media, number of ‘friends’, and investment through filtering pictures are factors through which social media negatively impacts body image.


There are other factors, too, which impact children’s self-worth and body image.


No matter how you interact with kids, whether it be as a parent, aunt/uncle, teacher or coach, you cannot control all of these factors. That is not your job.


You can say, do and model ways of being around body that positively impact the children around you.


What do I say and do with my kids to help them form an accepting body image?


The following analogy from Dr Hilary McBride’s book, Mothers, Daughters and Body Image may be helpful when thinking about what to do.

Imagine a piggy bank that is filled with positive/accepting body image coins.


Now think about a child at school. Maybe other students bully them based on their skin color, or they are told they need to eat less by their swim coach, or they look on Instagram at filtered pictures of celebrities. You get the picture.


Through these experiences, the piggy bank that we want filled with positive and accepting experiences around the body is emptied.


What happens if that child comes home and they are told to eat less, weigh less, look a certain way or be a ‘good’ girl? This could be a direct comment like: ‘you don’t need that pasta, carbs just make you gain weight.’ It could be using food to negotiate an outcome. I.e. ‘If you don’t do your homework, there is no dessert.’ Or, it could be a modeled action like a parent not eating what everyone else is eating at meal time or not keeping certain foods in the house.


Words and behaviors matter. You and your family can avoid perpetuating diet culture at home, and foster a healthful body image environment.


You can put coins into the piggy-bank, helping children build resilience and confidence.


Here are some thinks you can say to kids:


  • ‘You are enough as you are.’

  • ‘You are no less valuable or more valuable if you _______.’

  • ‘You know best when you’re hungry and full.

  • ‘Yes, that man does have a fat belly. Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. You are noticing that.’

  • ‘It is normal to feel confused about your body, even not like it sometimes. That is OK. I’m right here with you.’


Besides these direct statements, you can also:

  • Practice using compliments that have nothing to do with appearance.

  • Provide empathy and know what your boundaries are if kid is struggling

  • Connect with them, instead of control a situation. (For examples, forward to minute 18)

  • Encourage discussion around feelings, normalize anxiety and stress.


And, here are things you can do:

  • Don’t exercise excessively or relate it to your body size/shape.

  • Try not to body check in front of children.

  • Avoid comparisons of body size, money, weight, academic performance, etc.

  • Advocate at the doctor’s office. Is weight really a clinically important number for your child? Here is a resource for how to talk to the doctor about your child’s weight.

  • Get rid of scales in the house.

  • Wear clothes that fit. Buy your kids clothes that fit.

  • Put your phone down.

  • Work on your own self-acceptance and self-worth.

Certainly, there are ways of feeding kids that can also help with body image. You can read more about how to feed kids in an emotionally nourishing way here.


Closing Thoughts & Resources:


With our actions and words, we can let kids know that their bodies are theirs, no one else’s.

That their bodies are not proxies for worthiness. That their bodies are instruments, not ornaments.


That their bodies are their own.

Resources:

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with body acceptance, contact me!


With hope,

Kate


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