As mothers we know it’s very important how we talk to our children. We are constantly modeling. From how we interact with others, to our language, to how we go about our day, our children are watching. I can still hear my mother’s voice when I am washing the dishes or talking about “boys” with my 6th-grade daughter.
The way our culture currently approaches food and weight is in direct conflict with raising children to have a positive body image and not to be overly focused on food. It’s common place for people to say (and for our children to hear), “I’ve been so bad today. I ate dessert,” or “You look amazing, skinny mini!”
I am a mom of three and a dietitian specializing in eating disorders and child feeding problems. I see first hand the effect of how our language and relationship with food has on our children’s relationship with food and their own bodies.
Parents don’t cause eating disorders, but how we talk about food and weight can affect a child’s self-esteem and lead to behaviors that are eating disorder or weight cycling risk factors. Just as we consciously decide how we talk to our kids about being nice to others, religion, or the birds and bees, we can do the same with how we talk about food and weight.
4 Tips for Raising Body Positive Kids:
1. Talk positively about your own body in front of your children.
What if your child only heard you saying positive things about your body? Children learn from and model what their parents teach them. If you criticize your body and express a desire to change it, you are modeling negative body image to your child. Save negative talk about your body for behind closed doors or maybe eliminate it from your vocabulary all together! I think eliminating negative body talk in front of children could be a fabulous New Year’s Resolution!
2. Don’t comment on your child’s weight.
A child’s weight is ever changing. In the years around puberty, children gain on average forty pounds in four years. A child’s mind works differently than an adult’s. It can be harmful and confusing for a child to hear from a parent that their weight is not “right.” It’s so important for children to hear they are loved and accepted by their parents, no matter what.
3. Don’t classify foods as “good” and “bad.”
We can model what foods are more or less nutritious by what we serve at meals and snacks day in and day out. When we tell kids certain foods are “bad” more sensitive kids may hear this and take it very concretely – assigning a moral value to food. They are bad if they eat ‘bad’ food or some children may be scared to eat that food at all. Research also shows that having “off limit foods” can lead to eating (or binging) more of these “off limit foods” when they do become available. Think about it – when you go on a low carb diet, what is the first thing you crave? CARBS! By offering desserts occasionally and not putting a moral value on them, kids learn how to navigate them as part of what they eat.
4. Talk less, model more.
Nutrition is a complicated topic. It is, by nature, very abstract. As adults, we can understand that, for example, cake is not something to have with every meal, but that it’s also okay to have at a birthday party. When we try to start teaching young children topics of nutrition such as, macronutrients, balance, and variety, two things can happen:
a. Either, it doesn’t make sense to them and doesn’t truly affect their eating.
b. Or, for more sensitive children, they can latch onto a fact and interpret it concretely. For example, never eating any dietary fat out of fear, if they are told to eat less fat.
The abstract topics of nutrition are more appropriate for abstract thinkers, middle schoolers and up. We can teach young children nutrition through modeling.
As parents, we don’t have to be perfect and there are going to be times we mess up and say things we don’t want to say. I certainly do not have it all figured out. Parenting is hard. I think it takes a concerted effort to go against what has become commonplace in our culture about moralizing food and talking about our own bodies, as well as other people’s bodies.
Maybe our children can be the first generation that gives up the negative body talk and feels more comfortable in their bodies!
Family Feeding, Nutrition, Eating Disorders, and Body Image Resources:
Ellyn Satter Institute – www.ellynsatterinstitute.org
Southern Smash – www.southernsmash.org
McCall Dempsey – www.mccalldempsey.com
Sunny Side Up Nutrition – www.sunnysideupnutrtion.com
Mealtime Hostage – www.mealtimehostage.com
Our Mom’s Tribe Facebook Group, Local Therapist Renee Avis, LPC
National Eating Disorders Association – www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Your Child’s Weight, Helping Without Harming by Ellyn Satter
Love Me, Feed Me by Katja Rowell
Born to Eat by Leslie Schilling and Wendy Jo Peterson
Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin
Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Health at Every Size and Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor
Celebrate Your Body – and It’s Changes, too by Sophia Renee Taylor
Local Eating Concerns and Body Image Providers for Kids and/or Teens:
Renee Avis, LPC (10+)
CAS Counseling (11+)
Meredith Delbridge, LPC (12+)
Meredith Kolk-Tomberlin, LCSW (all ages) – Silber Psychological Services
Mosaic Comprehensive Care (Medical Primary Care) (14+)
Lutz, Alexander & Assoc. Nutrition Therapy (all ages)
Laurea Glusman McAllister, LCSW (15+)
Christy Rogers, LCSW (14+)
Kate Sutton, LPC (12+)
Sandra Wartski, PsyD. (all ages) – Silber Psychological Services
Local Eating Disorder Treatment Facilities:
Veritas Collaborative (children and adults)
Carolina House (adults)
Let’s Make Our Children’s Schools Free of Diet Talk
Stay tuned as we share more, in this four-part series, about body image, family feeding, and eating disorders.
Anna Lutz is a Raleigh mom of 3 and a Registered Dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Assoc. Nutrition Therapy (www.lutzandalexander.com). She specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition. Anna received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Duke University and Master of Public Health in Nutrition from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD). Anna is a national speaker and delivers workshops and presentations on eating disorders and childhood feeding. She is passionate about helping parents avoid the food battle and raise kids to feel good about food and their bodies. She writes about simple cooking, nutrition and family feeding at Sunny Side Up Nutrition (www.sunnysideupnutrition.com). Follow and connect with Anna on social below: