5 Actionable Steps To Help You Raise Resilient Children Who Will Resist Diet Culture
If you are a parent (or aunt, uncle, grandparent, teacher, volunteer or friend), chances are you worry about how the media, diet ads, and our culture in general might affect your child’s health and well-being.
I’m here to tell you that you have the power to raise resilient children who will resist diet culture.
As a parent, I often talk with other parents, and one of the most common things I’m asked is:
“How do I avoid passing along my negative body image and food issues to my children?”
You see, so many of us were raised in homes with parents who policed our food, moms who dieted off and on, and the idea the being thin was the goal at all costs. You may have started hating your own body when you were 10 or 12 and it’s been a battle ever since.
Now, you know you want to do better with your own children, but you have no idea how to break the cycle.
The good news is: You have the power to influence your children.
Your words and actions can help you raise children who shun diets and respect their body.
Why Is This So Important?
The statistics paint a pretty bleak picture*:
- By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.
- Children of mothers who are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risk for modeling their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.
- Media and social media images portray an ideal body type that is not achievable by many, leading to negative body image and diet behaviors.
- Up to 40% of overweight girls and 37% of overweight boys are teased about their weight by peers or family members. Weight teasing predicts weight gain, binge eating, and extreme weight control measures.
- Dieting is the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder.
- Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 with anorexia have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their same-aged peers.
Clearly, we have a problem.
But what should we, as adults do?
You Can Help Influence Kids’ Ability to Resist Diet Culture.
If you have children in your life, you’re probably concerned. You want them to be healthy AND have a better relationship with food than you were raised to have, but you’re not sure where to begin.
I want you to know that you do have an impact on the kids in your life and you can strongly influence them.
Here are 5 ways to help your kids resist diet culture and respect their bodies:
- Watch your body talk:
You might not think it, but our children really do listen to what we say (and do).
- Do you do any of the following?:
- Talk to a friend about how you hate your thighs, arms, etc;
- Refuse to go swimming at the pool or beach in the summer;
- Continually try new diets to help you lose those stubborn 20 pounds….
I know that changing the way you talk and behave can be REALLY HARD. Most often, when a group of women get together, the subject of bodies and dieting comes up. So, here’s where I’d like you to start: when you notice the urge to bash your body while you’re on the phone, bite your tongue! And when you are at the pool, bottle up all that insecurity you feel and get in the pool. Your child will love having you swimming with them! Don’t let your daughter believe that she can’t swim when she’s an adult!
- Choose your words wisely:
Perhaps you’ve made the effort to change your language. You don’t use the words fat, chubby, and thin anymore. But, you may have started using words like fit, healthy, and strong. While there is nothing wrong with these words per se, they may get twisted around in your children’s heads. You see, in our society, the words healthy and fit often translate to thin.
Instead, resist using these generalizations about bodies. If your child does something that makes you proud, tell them specifically what it is : “You look like you’re having so much fun while you’re dancing!” or “Your swing has improved so much from last year.”
- Stop micromanaging your kids’ food:
I can already hear the objections I’ll get, but let me elaborate: Research show us that children ultimately want to eat food that they enjoy and makes them feel good. Yes, there are medical and psychological exceptions and those might need some intervention, BUT it is highly unlikely that your child falls into this group.
The parents’ job is to provide the structure of varied meals and snacks, including treats, at set times. However, parents should not bribe or otherwise meddle into what their kids eat at the table.
- You decide on what, when and where.
- Your child decides how much and whether or not they eat.
- That’s it! If they decide not to eat, they’ll eat at the next meal or snack. They won’t starve or be scarred by not eating at one meal – trust me!
- Challenge authority when necessary.
Sadly, doctors don’t always know best. Many have many of the same weight biases that are so prevalent in our society. Be your child’s voice when other (well-meaning) authorities discuss counting calories, your child’s weight or their body size.
- Coaches should NOT be weighing your children;
- Teachers should not be having kids count calories as part of a nutrition assignment;
- Doctors should not expect children to grow in a linear fashion, nor discussing BMI with your children at annual physicals.
It’s amazing, but most children grown predictably when given structure and autonomy around food and exercise. Occasionally, a child may deviate from their growth curve. If this persists, a family consult with a non-diet registered dietitian to help with structure might be in order.
- Sit down and eat family meals with your children.
As a busy parent, I understand the objections that might be popping into your mind right now. I’d like to put your mind at ease:
- Family meal doesn’t have to mean dinner. Any meal counts.
- Family meals don’t mean you have to cook something elaborate. Sandwiches, a meal kit or take-out count too. As long as everyone is sitting at the table without electronics at the same time, it’s a family meal!
However, parents should eat the same food as their kids. Too many moms let their food issues prevent them from sitting down and eating the same food as their families.
How Does That List Make You Feel?
You might read the above list and find some suggestions challenging. I want you to know that every action you take will have positive effects on your children.
I also want you to know that picking and choosing the steps that are easy for you WILL leave your children more vulnerable.
I know that so many women have lots of body image and food baggage that they’ve been carrying around for most of their lives, and moving through that all is hard work.
I do believe that you can make these changes for the benefit of your children.
To make it easier for you, I’ve created a printable PDF of the 5 Ways To Help Your Kids Resist Diet Culture and Respect Their Bodies. Grab your copy here!
When it comes down to it, is there anything you wouldn’t do for your kids?
If you want to learn more about how I approach feeding kids, particularly as it relates to sweets and candy at Halloween (or other holidays), check out my blog post on just that topic: Halloween Survival Guide
*All statistics and research obtained from National Eating Disorders Association (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org)
Graphic 1: Andreyeva, T., Puhl, R. M. and Brownell, K. D. (2008), Changes in Perceived Weight Discrimination Among Americans, 1995–1996 Through 2004–2006. Obesity, 16: 1129–1134. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.35
Kelly Abramson MS, RD is a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor who works with clients in Alexandria, VA and virtually via telehealth. She guides women as they break free from dieting to find joy in food and their bodies. Kelly blogs regularly at NpowerYou.com and has created a free e-book for download, “7 Steps to Overcome Stress Eating.”