Even the smallest children can be influenced by negative language surrounding body image. If you've heard your 4-year-old boy or girl call someone or something "fat" — or even if you haven't — it's not too late to model language that will contribute to positive self worth for your future adult children. It is valid to be concerned about your own weight, but instead of verbalizing your desire to drop pounds, or to talk about the size and shape of the bodies of others, you can employ more positive words and actions for your child’s best interest.
Children listen to and pick up on more than we might realize. We, as parents, are the first role models our kids will learn from, and even subtle facial expressions, gestures or words can send the wrong message. The effort to model a good body image should definitely start in our own home, and this doesn’t just concern our children’s bodies, but our own.“We can't control these messages out in the world, but we can control what, as parents come out of our mouths around children,” says Jennifer Kelman, LMSW. “If we are constantly walking around talking about dieting, being thin, exercise, etc., then our children pick up on these messages and begin to parrot them and claim them as their own, often not even realizing the meaning.”
Instead of stressing about the scale, make an effort to emphasize healthy habits. This can include exercising and playing together as a family, exploring new cuisine, and making sure everyone gets enough sleep. Focusing on healthy immune systems is more ideal than a focus on a waistline, and you and your family can reap the benefits of working together as a solid unit towards an ultimate goal of good health. “What's important is that the body you have is healthy and that you take good care of it by eating healthy foods, getting rest, and exercising to make the body and brain smart and strong,” explains Diana Bigham, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
It’s also good to have a healthy relationship with people of all shapes and sizes, and to not comment or discuss weight gain or loss about those you know. If your children see that you don’t treat people differently based on their body, it will help them naturally adopt a similar stance. And if your child talks about other people’s size, whether it’s a family member or a person in the media, don’t avoid about talking about it. “Encourage them to talk of their feelings around why they think thin is better,” explains Kelman. “The less emphasis we place on it, the less it will be alive for them.”
The word “fat” is considered to be quite offensive, so if you hear your child mention it in passing conversation, whether it be about a cartoon character or a human being, you can correct that behavior. “Everyone is awesome, no matter what size or shape they are,” says Bingham. “No one shape or size is better than another person. Parents can also gently correct movies, other adults, or other messages that a child hears that uses the 'fat' word to help them understand that it is not a good way of viewing bodies.”
Overall, remember that body image starts to form from a very early age, and we as parents can do our children an amazing service by being good role models. “Fat isn't a feeling and healthy body image is unrelated to size,” Kelman tells us. “These things are crucial to remember and teach our kids.”
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