Did your child's annual wellness visit to the pediatrician find them tiptoeing over into what some deem an "unhealthy" body mass index? Before you worry too much about that number, know it should not be used as a metric to determine overall health; in fact, research shows BMI is, well, a lie.
That said, licensed psychologist Dr. Denise Dixon notes that rates of supposedly "overweight" children and adolescents have risen dramatically since the 1970s — and that's not a great trend. Helping a child learn healthy relationships with food and exercise from an early age is essential, Dixon explains, especially since obese children from the age of 8 to 10 have an 80 percent chance of remaining obese as adults. But weight doesn't only have a relationship to a child's health; it can affect their self-esteem too.
That’s why it’s important to educate your child — gently and effectively — about health and body image. Here, psychologists shed light on the best ways to start the conversation.
Let them explain what they’re feeling
If your typically chatterbox child comes home without much to say and suddenly declares they are "fat," clinical psychologist Dr. Stephanie O’Leary says to bite your tongue and hear them out first. Your role here is detective, determining why — all of a sudden — they’re concerned about the numbers on the scale or their reflection in the mirror. “This allows your child to express their feelings and thoughts without editing based on your reactions, which can come across as judgments even if that's not what you intend,” she explains. For a child who is worried about a certain body part, you can respond, "It must be hard to feel that way," instead of telling them not to worry, which doesn’t validate their emotions. “Once you have the facts, you can begin to ask questions that will help you navigate the best course of action. This conveys support and understanding without challenging your child's perspective and leaves the door open for you to continue the dialogue,” O’Leary explains.
Once the ice has been broken and the anxiety about body image is on the table, you can tread carefully as you dig deeper to gain perspective from the child. O’Leary suggests asking follow-up questions, including: "How long have you been feeling this way?" or "Are kids talking a lot about weight at school?" While you might not get specific answers right away, O’Leary notes that by kindly probing, you send the message you’re there to listen and help your child mentally — and physically — deal with how they’re feeling.
If the tables get turned and your child starts asking you specific questions, O’Leary says it’s essential to respond in a way that reiterates that healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. “Refocus the conversation on health and talk about ways to move toward keeping bodies healthy without linking that to weight or size. The message should not be 'eat well and exercise so you can be smaller' — it should be 'eat healthy and exercise so you can be healthy regardless of what your body looks like,'” she notes. And you can feel free to let your child know healthy habits usually lead to feeling great too.
Educate your child about healthy habits
As licensed clinical psychologist Kate K. Lund explains, you not only want your kiddo to eat more vegetables; you want them to make a personal commitment to maintaining an attitude that supports health throughout their life. Instead of constant hand-holding, give them the basics about what’s nutritious for their body and what doesn’t serve it well. “Empower the child to take ownership of the process and perhaps even plan and prepare a meal on a given night of the week on their own,” Lund says. “Then praise the child for their efforts and have the parent point out, in a positive manner, the ways in which the meal boosted his or her own energy.”
Give them more responsibility to build confidence
Part of the act of helping your child navigate their body image is building confidence in ways that aren’t about weight — such as activities or goals that will encourage a sense of accomplishment. “Just like the pride you see when your child first learns to ride a bike or snap their fingers, taking on a new household chore or being given additional responsibility goes a long way,” Lund explains. This is also an opportunity to remind them it’s not just perfect practice that should be rewarded, but effort. “Try to avoid praising your child for outcomes such as a specific grade or making a goal in sports and focus on praising efforts. Instead, send the message that your child's attitude and level of effort are most important and avoid the trap of confidence being contingent upon specific outcomes that are impossible to guarantee” — like weight loss.
Encourage self-love & a healthy body image
Dixon emphasizes how important it is to teach your child to love their body just as it is now. Even if their doctor encourages them to lose weight to improve their health, implementing a practice of self-esteem from the get-go will help them avoid centering their entire image on what the number reads on the scale. “The focus should be on what is right about the body, not what needs to change. We can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, move our bodies. We eat food, and our bodies take what is needed and gets rid of the rest,” Dixon explains. You can start with a daily journal about what they love about their outward appearance — whether it’s their brown eyes, long eyelashes, curly hair, bright smile — and then move to their inner qualities. The more they express what they value about themselves, the more well-rounded their attitude will become — and the more motivated they'll be to keep that beautiful body as healthy as it can be.
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