Your overweight teen confides in you that he’s getting teased at school about his weight. You have noticed recently that he has been eating more pleasure foods (like chips) while playing video games. You yourself have gained a few pounds, and you’ve decided to go on a little diet. How do you manage this situation? What do you say (or not say) to him?
Helping children foster a positive body image while developing a healthy relationship with food can seem like navigating a minefield. Messages that our bodies aren’t good enough and that our self-worth depends on our looks are everywhere, while at the same time clever marketing is constantly encouraging us to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods. Body dissatisfaction is common among adolescents, and has been shown to predict unhealthy weight-related behaviours that put individuals at risk of weight gain (e.g., binge eating and reduced breakfast consumption) (1). Moreover, our lifestyles are more sedentary than ever before (2), and global childhood overweight and obesity is on the rise (see http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/childhood/en/).
You may feel like you have no power to influence your children in this toxic landscape that overemphasizes being thin while at the same time encourages overeating. Fortunately, there are some things you can do! It turns out that what we, as parents and caregivers, say about food, weight and dieting (even if we’re talking about ourselves or our friends) matters. For example, when we encourage kids to make healthful food choices, and support them in physical activity, they tend to have more positive dietary habits (like eating more fruits and vegetables) and engage in more healthy physical activity (3, 4). At the other extreme, kids who are teased about their weight in early adolescence tend to have poorer emotional well-being (5) and more disordered eating (e.g., binge eating) in late adolescence and young adulthood (6).
So how can we help children develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, while not making them feel like their self-worth is based on the size and shape of their bodies? In general, we want to try to:
Ban any form of diet talk and negative body talk from our homes.
Encourage healthful eating and physical activity habits.
Through our words, try to nurture an identity beyond physical appearance.
Easier said than done, I know. Check out these specific examples below, taken from and inspired by Dianne Neumark-Sztainer’s book, " “I’m like so fat!” Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world" (7).
1. Instead of DIET TALK like:
• "I feel so fat; I need to go on a diet."
• "No thanks to dessert; I’m dieting."
• "I’m so proud of my friend Stacey for sticking with her diet."
• "Have you ever thought of going on such-and-such diet? It really worked for your Aunt Carol."
• “I’ll pass on dessert today and have an apple instead; I haven’t had enough fruits and vegetables today.”
• “No thanks, I’m full.”
• “Yes, I’d love dessert. Just a small piece please.”
• “This is delicious. I’m really enjoying this meal. But no thanks to seconds.”
• “I’ve discovered a million different ways to eat fruits and vegetables.”
• “I’m not going on any more ‘diets.’ Instead I’m going to focus on some long-term changes in my eating and physical activity patterns that can make me feel better about myself.”
2. Instead of NEGATIVE BODY TALK like:
• “I feel so fat in this dress.”
• “I’m working out so much and not losing weight; I don’t know if it’s worth it all the time?”
• “My body has undergone some changes lately; I think I’ll try on something else that might fit my body better.”
• “I can really tell the difference in my strength and stamina since I’ve been working out.”
3. Instead of over-emphasizing your kid’s PHYSICAL APPEARANCE through comments like:
• “You look so pretty today.”
• “Wow you look great in that picture. You’re the handsomest kid in the class.”
• “You’re going to break some hearts when you’re older with that handsome face.”
• “I love your laugh; it’s just contagious.”
• “When you smile, your whole face lights up. It’s just beautiful.”
• “You have a great, unique sense of style. I admire the way you wear what looks great on you instead of what everyone else is wearing.”
• “You look so much like Grandpa; when I look at you it brings back so many great memories.”
For more great tips and information on this topic, check out my colleague Jodie’s blog post, We All Know What It’s Like To Feel Fat. Let’s Try To Change That For Our Next Generation.
In person! Come check out our workshop for parents and caregivers, Healthy Children: Body and Mind, on March 25th, 2018 from 1:30 - 3pm at the Sylvan Adams YM-YWHA (Montreal) to learn more about how to help kids nurture a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
On social media! Follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology.
Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
A shorter version of this blogpost was originally posted as a Facebook post here.
Learn more about the research discussed in this blogpost here: Project EAT Publications
Neumark-Sztainer, D., Paxton, S. J., Hannan, P. J., Haines, J., & Story, M. (2006). Does body satisfaction matter? Five-year longitudinal associations between body satisfaction and health behaviors in adolescent females and males. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39(2), 244-251.
Owen, N., Sparling, P. B., Healy, G. N., Dunstan, D. W., & Matthews, C. E. (2010, December). Sedentary behavior: emerging evidence for a new health risk. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 85, No. 12, pp. 1138-1141). Elsevier.
Pearson, N., Biddle, S. J., & Gorely, T. (2009). Family correlates of fruit and vegetable consumption in children and adolescents: a systematic review. Public health nutrition, 12(2), 267-283.
Heitzler, C. D., Martin, S. L., Duke, J., & Huhman, M. (2006). Correlates of physical activity in a national sample of children aged 9–13 years. Preventive medicine, 42(4), 254-260.
Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Haines, J., & Wall, M. (2006). Weight-teasing and emotional well-being in adolescents: Longitudinal findings from Project EAT. Journal of Adolescent Health, 38(6), 675-683.
Haines, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Eisenberg, M. E., & Hannan, P. J. (2006). Weight teasing and disordered eating behaviors in adolescents: longitudinal findings from Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics, 117(2), e209-e215.
Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2005). I'm, like, SO fat!: helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Guilford Press.