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Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Words Matter: Helping Kids Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food and their Bodies One Word at a Time

Photo by  Ali Inay  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ali Inay on Unsplash

Imagine this…

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."

TRY:
• “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?”

TRY: 
• “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.”

TRY:
• “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.”

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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.

Join us…

  • 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 jrichardson@connectepsychology.com 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 blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


NOTES

  • 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

REFERENCES

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat.  Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

We all know what it’s like to feel fat. Let’s try to change that for our next generation.

shutterstock_277455629.jpg

I could feed you the statistics saying that obesity, eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are serious problems in our society*, but I think you already know it. Why? Because most of us know exactly how terrible it feels to feel bad about our body, to feel fat compared to others, to feel judged, obsessed, and anxious about everything we eat and everyone we see. Most of us at one point or another in our lives have tried some sort of unhealthy weight control behaviour, gotten stuck in a dieting-binge eating cycle, or found ourselves feeling depressed and ashamed because of how we look. We might not admit it openly, but we know.

Why do so many of us know this? Because we live in a “toxic environment”1 for body image and weight-related problems. We are constantly receiving cues to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods on TV, in the grocery store, while driving down the street and we are enabled to be as sedentary as possible with our cars, our escalators, and our ball throwers for our dogs. And yet, within this same environment that facilitates weight gain, we are bombarded with messages that we should be unrealistically thin and fit and everywhere we look we are surrounded with images of thinness that are associated with success, love, popularity, and happiness.

“It is difficult to imagine an environment more effective than ours for producing nearly universal body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with eating and weight, clinical cases of eating disorders, and obesity.” Dr. Kelly Brownell1

But again you already know all of this, why? Because we experience it everyday when we go on Facebook or Instagram. Before we clicked we felt fine but now we feel that sinking feeling in our gut and start thinking “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not fit enough”, etc. We experience it when we’re waiting in line at the supermarket and we read the headlines of the magazines stating how this actress is now battling anorexia and how fat the other one’s butt looks in her bikini and how to lose our own belly fat in just 30 days! And what is all this obsessiveness for? So we can all continue to make the beauty & dieting & fast food industries prosper? So we can all spend inordinate amounts of time on our appearance and thinking about food? So we can all try to look the same? So we can all feel terrible about ourselves? I guess not, but we’re so used to it that many of us don’t even see that our environment is a problem, we blame ourselves instead for not being thin enough, tall enough, fit enough… we think we’ll feel better if we just “fit in”.

Maybe you want to change all of this for yourself. I hope so, because you deserve it. But, one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that you don’t want your kids or kids you care about to feel the same way that you have. You want them to feel healthy and strong. You want them to feel confident about themselves, about their bodies, about their food choices, and about their uniqueness. You want them to take care of themselves, to trust themselves and to be free to be themselves, right?

So, what can we do to mitigate this toxic social environment that we live in so that our children can make healthy choices and feel good about themselves?

Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, professor, researcher and advocate in the field of obesity and eating disorder prevention has written a great book called “I’m, like, So fat!”2 on how to help our teens navigate eating and body image in this weight-obsessed world. It’s a super helpful read! Here are just a few pointers from the book:

1. Model healthy behaviours and healthy body talk.

a. Model healthy eating patterns, which means eating regularly and not skipping meals. Model healthy food choices, which means incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods. If you have trouble adhering to these guidelines due to your own eating preoccupations try to model healthy behaviours in front of your children. What they see you doing is what matters most for them.

b. Show your kids how to enjoy pleasurable foods in moderation; this is a skill they need to have in this environment! When you have a piece of cake try to show them you appreciate it. Don’t say something like “oh, I really shouldn’t be eating this”. And if you choose not to opt for cake on an occasion, say something like “tonight my body feels like something more refreshing for dessert”, rather than “I’d love to but I can’t, I’m on a diet”.

c. Model healthy body acceptance. Try to show your kids a positive attitude towards your own body. Tell them something you’re grateful for about your body, for example “I’m so thankful that my legs are so strong, they helped me walk all the way to my meeting today”. Help them see that changes in our bodies over time are normal. For example find something positive to say about your wrinkles like how these lines show all the expressions your face has worn over the years. Seeing you accept your body changes will help them think more positively about their own body changes, especially during puberty.

d. Avoid making weight-related comments as much as possible about yourself or others and don’t make weight-related comments directed at your children.

2. Create a healthy environment at home.

a. Make access to healthy foods readily available. Have fresh fruits and vegetables on hand and, if possible, cut up and ready to go.

b. Prioritize family meals. Participation in family meals is related to a number of positive outcomes, including healthier diet, less unhealthy weight-control behaviours, less unhealthy behaviours like smoking, alcohol and drugs and less depressive symptoms in teenagers.

c. Don’t just encourage your children to do physical activity, do it with them. Walking, biking, skiing, going to the park… Make physical activity part of family time together. Start wherever you can and try to make it fun!

3. Focus less on appearance, more on health.

a. Encourage your children to develop healthy habits for the purpose of taking care of their bodies, not for the purpose of losing weight.

b. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for weight teasing or negative weight talk in your home. Help your children realize that weight teasing is not acceptable.

c. Help your children develop an identity much larger than physical appearance. Focus your positive feedback on other aspects of their identity like skills, traits, hobbies, and interests.

4. Talk to them, and listen even more.

a. Be there to listen and support when your child wants to talk about their weight concerns. Empathize with them, you can even tell them you know how difficult it is to feel “fat” or less attractive than your peers for one reason or another. We all feel like this sometimes.

b. When your child talks about feeling fat, find out what’s really going on. Are they being teased at school? Are their friends making comments about being fat that are rubbing off on them? Are they feeling insecure and so they think losing weight would make them feel better? Listen before trying to fix. Often in listening we can help them come to their own solutions. Let them know that you’re always there to listen.

c. Let your child know that you love them no matter what their size, shape, and appearance. That you love them just as they are. Although we think that as our kids reach adolescence they don’t care about what we think anymore, they do. We do have the power to be a positive force for them!

Come to our workshop in March if you want to talk more about how you can try your best to be a positive influence for your children in our toxic environment. And follow our campaign on Instagram @connectepsychology if you want to join the conversation before that!


Jodie Richardson 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 blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

1Dr. Kelly Brownell is Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also Robert L. Flowers Professor of Public Policy, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Director of the World Food Policy Center

2I’m, like, SO fat! Helping your teen make healthy choices about eating and exercise in a weight-obsessed world. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, PhD. Guilford Press. 2005.

World Health Organization, Obesity and Overweight Fact Sheet, Updated October 2017

Project EAT studies can be found here: http://www.sphresearch.umn.edu/epi/project-eat/#EAT1

Becker A.E et al., Eating behaviours and attitudes following prolonged exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, The British Journal of Psychiatry Jun 2002, 180 (6) 509-514.

*If you’d like statistics here are a few from the World Health Organization as well as studies by Dr. Anne Becker in Fiji and Dr. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer in Project EAT:

Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.

Globally rates of childhood overweight and obesity have risen from 4% in 1975 to just over 18% in 2016.

Project EAT, a large multi-site study of 4700 adolescents in the United States, found that:

  • Almost half of girls and one fourth of boys were highly dissatisfied with their bodies and that body dissatisfaction contributed to a plethora of problems like unhealthy dieting, binge eating, depression, and weight gain over time.
  • Girls who read magazine articles about dieting/weight loss were six times more likely to engage in extremely unhealthy weight-control behaviours (like vomiting, diet pills). Boys who read the articles were four times as likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviours.
  • Adolescents with a bedroom television reported more television viewing time, less physical activity, poorer dietary habits, fewer family meals, and poorer school performance. 

When Fiji got television in 1995, vomiting for weight control purposes went from 0-11% among girls over a three-year period, eating pathology more than doubled and girls living in households with a television were more than three times as likely to have high eating pathology.

Helping versus hovering Part 2: How can we avoid over parenting?

Helping versus hovering Part 2: How can we avoid over parenting?

A couple of months ago, in early December, I shared a post on “hovering versus helping” after reading Jessica Lahey’s book “The Gift of Failure”. Lahey’s message is basically that well-intentioned parents who believe they are helping their kids are actually doing more harm than good by hovering. I had promised to follow-up with another post providing some practical tips on how we can avoid “over parenting” and some ideas on what exactly we CAN do in an effort to foster the development of our children’s’ autonomy, so here we go!

The development of autonomy is an important part of our children’s maturation process. Ultimately, one of our goals as parents is to prepare our children to go out into the world on their own. In her book, Lahey argues that our overprotective and failure adverse parenting style has resulted in undermining our children’s competence, autonomy and their resilience.  In other words, we are failing as parents as far as preparing them to go out into the world as autonomous individuals. She argues that one of the best things we can do as parents is to let go of control, and work towards helping our kids embrace opportunities for failure and help them find ways to grow and learn from their setbacks.  Great, but how do we do that?!

Step 1. Back off!!

As challenging as it can be (believe me, I know this is easier said than done!) resisting the temptation to jump in to help, assist, or speed things up for our children is very important. Lahey (2015) describes autonomy supportive parenting as sticking to the sidelines; in other words, being present and available for support, but not taking over. No micromanaging! For example, encouraging your 6 year old to bring his/her plate to the kitchen after a meal is a great idea, but step back if you notice they are holding the plate with one hand and rushing, resulting in them spilling some of what’s leftover on the plate. This is an opportunity to learn how to wipe up a mess and to discover that holding the plate steady with both hands and walking slowly will prevent a spill. Another example might be, when asking a child to clean up his toys, allow him the time it will take him to do so on his own, even if you know you could get them sorted and put away much more quickly.

As a parent, it can be very challenging to stick to the sidelines, and you may struggle knowing what to do as you watch (been there!). Here are a couple of tips.  Try to listen and be empathetic without diving in to solve a problem your child is struggling with.  Express an interest and support them by listening and, if appropriate, help them by providing alternative solutions when they are problem solving. The idea to retain here is that we want to give our children the space to develop skills on their own and learn from their mistakes. By repeatedly stepping in, we are not providing them with room to figure things out on their own, and hence, we are fostering dependence and communicating a message to them that we don’t think they can do it, or not without our help in any case. This is not the message we want to convey to our children, is it? So back off!

Step 2. Let’s change how we perceive failure!

Lahey (2015) maintains that failure has become a bad word (the new F word?!) and that it’s important we “destigmatize it”. Obstacles, challenge, and failure (yes, even failure!) are a part of life. Let’s work on changing the way we think about failure and the way we talk about it with our kids. Failure is an important part of children’s development and allows for opportunities to solve problems and develop resilience. So, looks like there is an upside to failure after all! Let’s admit to our children that we have struggled ourselves or have had things turn out differently than we had hoped. Lahey argues that failure is one of our most valuable parenting tools. In other words, let’s give our kids permission to stumble by sharing stories of our own struggles and let’s help them by supporting them when they stumble as they get back up.

“Failure is success if we learn from it.”~ Malcolm Forbes

Step 3. Encourage your kids to take risks and to try something new by being a healthy role model

Our society has an aversion to fear which results in less risk taking and consequently less opportunity for growth. Communicate your confidence in your child’s ability to cope with challenges and setbacks.  You might also consider modeling some healthy risk taking behaviour yourself. Maybe try something new and share your experience with them. Perhaps you have always wanted to try a painting class but haven’t for fear that you wouldn’t be very good. You could try out a paint night activity and share with your child by explaining that this is something you had wanted to do, but had been hesitant to do, and that it felt good to try something new! Basically, the idea is encourage your kids to try something new and model this behaviour for them.

Owning up to our own mistakes with our children and sharing our own experiences with obstacles and how we learned from a challenging situation can help them become more comfortable overcoming obstacles themselves. By modelling, we can teach our children to see mistakes as opportunities for growth and feedback as helpful to the learning process. Let your kids know that mistakes are natural and that you love them no matter what. Encourage them when they make mistakes and praise them for taking responsibility for a mistake and for working through a challenge. These actions can also help challenge unrealistic and unhealthy striving for “perfection”.

Step 4. Ditch the bribes and rewards!

Lahey (2015) explains that the less we push our children to perform academically, the better they will learn. The use of external rewards (I think most of us are guilty of this! Stickers or treats anyone?), interferes with our children’s engagement and more importantly with their love of learning. Lahey (2015) shares that in her own classroom, she has witnessed that students desire to please parents and teachers through achievement has interfered with them enjoying the process and kills their motivation over time. The research on motivation clearly indicates that when humans perceive control (which comes with rewards and bribes), their motivation is negatively affected and as a result their potential for learning is affected as well (Pink, 2009). As an alternative, Lahey (2015) suggests we encourage our children to set their own goals and praise their efforts rather than their results. When we step back, they will become more invested and take ownership of their goals and develop a sense of autonomy.

Lahey (2015) refers to Carol Dweck’s (2006) fascinating research, which showed that praising kids for their effort rather for their intelligence resulted in them being more persistent when faced with a difficult task and as a result they performed better. The research suggests that children who are praised for their intelligence were less likely to take risks for fear of making a mistake and compromising their score or status as being labelled as smart. Dweck’s research demonstrated that students who were encouraged to place importance on the learning process developed a growth mindset, which resulted in greater effort, more engagement with the learning process and better performance. Those with a fixed mindset tended to be less engaged, make less of an effort and didn’t perform as well. As parents, we want to encourage a growth mindset in our children. How? Let’s start by resisting the temptation to praise results and make judgements on their grades (ex. “Way to go, you got a B+”) opting instead, to praise their efforts and the learning process (“You really worked and improved a lot! What do you think helped you grasp the material you prepped for the test?”). Lahey (2015) also reminds us that important research by Angela Duckworth (1987) has shown that persistence and commitment to long term goals (which she labelled as “grit”) is the best predictor of success, outweighing grades, IQ, etc. Encouraging a growth mindset in our kids can help contribute to the development of “grit”, so praise your kids’ efforts and perseverance and not their results!

Step 5. Give your kids chores to do around the house

Allow your children to contribute around the house from a young age. Lahey (2015) points out that kids enjoy helping out and feeling competent. Think of a time your child did something on his/her own and that look of pride beaming from their cute little face! Lahey (2015) encourages us to allow our kids to help out by doing age appropriate tasks. For example, toddlers can put their dirty clothes in a laundry hamper; between 3-5 years of age, kids can help clear the table after a meal; and older kids (6-11) can do more complex tasks like helping to cut fruits or vegetables or helping to prepare grocery lists (I tried this one out with my 6 year old and she beamed with pride as she practiced her writing skills and sneakily added a couple of silly items onto the list to make me giggle!). Children over the age of 12 can do most other household chores (ex. replacing batteries in a smoke detector, laundry, etc.). Remember, what’s most important here is for the child to have a sense of pride from having participated and contributed and not from a job perfectly done. Laundry folded by a child might not look as polished as when you do it yourself, but that’s not the point here! Give your child the space and time to do things him or herself and allow them to develop valuable skills as well as a sense of competence and pride. Don’t praise the completed task, praise their dedication and persistence. Remember, these are excellent opportunities to help our children develop important life skills they will use throughout their lives as well as develop a sense of competence and confidence (and hey, it might reduce your list of chores, so I say go for it!).


Andrea Martin 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 blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


References

Duckworth, E. R. (1987). “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and other essays on Teaching & Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of Success. New York: Random House Publishers.

Lahey, J. (2015). The Gift of Failure. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.