How to Help Your Child Like Her or His Body

Does your daughter think she’s too fat? Is your son worried that he doesn’t have enough muscle? Having a poor body image is one of the defining characteristics of an eating disorder. Also, it often contributes to the social and emotional difficulties that overweight kids experience. When a child doesn’t like their body, they may resort to unhealthy dieting, bingeing and purging, or give up, gain weight, and withdraw from other kids and activities. Especially in childhood, body image plays a major role in self-esteem. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you think you’re too fat or are a weakling.

If you’re a parent concerned about your child gaining weight how can you encourage weight loss without making him or her feel bad about their body? Putting a child on a diet or commenting about their weight, even if it’s done humorously, is rarely helpful. Instead of discussing weight, encourage healthy eating and enjoyable physical activity. Many thin kids could also improve their eating and exercise habits, so you won’t be singling out an overweight child if he or she has thinner siblings.

Be a good role model. Teach and model kindness and good manners online. Because children are great mimics, limit your own media use. In fact, you'll be more available for and connected with your children if you're interacting, hugging and playing with them rather than simply staring at a screen.

One of the most helpful things you can do is to examine how you feel about your own body. If you’re dissatisfied, think you’re too heavy, or just don’t like some part of it, make sure you aren’t modeling dissatisfaction. For example, girls don’t need to hear Mom saying, “Does this make my butt look big?” and boys don’t benefit from Dad making negative comments about their beer bellies. If you feel bad about your body it won’t help you or your child to verbalize these feelings. Instead, you can express pride when you make a positive change. Let your child hear you give yourself credit for playing (not watching) sports or making a healthy food choice.

If your daughter is approaching puberty, especially if she’s maturing early, before her friends and classmates, she may be self-conscious and feel that her newly rounded shape is evidence that she’s getting fat. You can help her understand that the changes to her body are a sign that she’s becoming a woman rather than that she’s getting larger.

If your child is distressed about a particular body part, explain that body shape is largely inherited. Losing weight may have a minimal effect on a large butt or thighs. Help your child understand that he or she can be healthy and attractive even without a “perfect” body. You can point out an attractive feature, such as strong arms or a pretty smile, to decrease dissatisfaction with other body parts. You could also mention a friend or an adult in the family with a similar figure who is still loved. Genetics may limit how much we can change our bodies, but it doesn’t determine how we think about them.

Treat media as you would any other environment in your child's life. The same parenting guidelines apply in both real and virtual environments. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Know your children's friends, both online and off. Know what platforms, software, and apps your children are using, what sites they are visiting on the web, and what they are doing online.