Eating disorders affect children of all genders starting at a young age. Despite the stereotype that only females struggle with body image and eating disorders, one in every three people struggling with an eating disorder is male. Pressures from social media, peers, and rising bullying are putting our kids at extra risk for developing weight stigma and eating disorders. So what can we do?
It starts with YOU. As a parent or guardian, the way you talk about your body and how you approach food directly impacts the way your child will do these things. Take time to assess where you are on the road to Body Positivity. Do you buy into diet culture? What language do you use around weight and nutrition in the home? The worldview our kids live with is strongly influenced by the worldview we present to them.
Talk about food as a source of energy and strength – both physically and emotionally. Make sure to cut out labeling food as “good” or “bad”, but rather focus on the different purposes foods serve in our diet.
Ask your child to identify what they like about different parts of their body. Use the conversation to expand from appearance to function if necessary, and discuss how amazing it is that our bodies help us to live and move in the world, regardless of how they look.
Who are their role models? Ask your child to identify friends, characters in shows, or teachers they look up to. Ask them what specific personality traits they look up to in these people. Identifying what traits your child values helps to challenge misconceptions and reinforce positive values.
Finally, teaching your child healthy coping skills from a young age has a huge impact on their mental and physical health for their entire lives. De-stigmatizing mental health and providing your child with the tools to handle stress and anxiety teaches them how to care for their mental health in all areas of their lives as they age.
Now, let’s talk about the pediatrician’s office. Weight stigma is often (unintentionally) inspired by and encouraged by your child’s doctor. Most doctors find that tracking a child’s weight as they grow signifies healthy growth patterns and helps with identifying illness and prescribing medications. Unfortunately, this can have devastating effects on children, even if the language seems innocent.
Encouraging a larger-bodied child to exercise or eat more fruits and vegetables after a routine weigh-in creates food and body morality and tells your child that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to have a body. Telling an average- or smaller-bodied child they have a “healthy weight” encourages them to believe that thinness is ideal and instills a fear of becoming larger.
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that has constructed the idea that thin bodies are not only ideal and “healthier”, but also morally superior, but remember – this theory is not backed by science. Rejecting this belief system does not put your child’s health at risk. In fact, encouraging your child to love the skin they’re in and understand that health is found at every size has lasting benefits both physically and mentally.
Some parents have begun to ask their doctors to not discuss weigh-ins in front of their children. To make this potentially awkward conversation a little easier, we have provided a free downloadable card you can present to your doctor at the office asking them to abstain from discussing weight with your child.
If you or your child need additional support around Body Positivity, understanding Health at Every Size (HAES), or eating disorder treatment, please reach out to us to schedule a consultation with our HAES-focused Registered Dietitian, Victoria Mackowiak. Victoria believes in intuitive eating and a non-diet approach to eating. She has experience working with people ages 12 and up, and would love to walk beside you or your child toward a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
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