It can feel like an insurmountable task to ‘get it right’ with your child in helping them to develop a healthy body image and balanced eating habits. On the one hand, we hear daily scaremongering news of the dangers of obesity and eating too much sugar. Simultaneously, we are also terrified of our child developing an eating disorder and becoming too thin. The culture and environment do not support our efforts, with cheap, tasty, processed food available in abundance, whilst we at the same time we continue to be bombarded by perfect social-media images. This discrepancy alone creates an unhelpful backdrop for trying to develop healthy attitudes towards body image and eating.
As a therapist, I specialise in treating adults with eating disorders. The seeds of the eating disorder are often inadvertently sewn early on life, and by the time someone comes to see me, it can be a challenge to untangle the complex web of issues that have unwittingly influenced someone in their childhood and adolescent years. I am going to talk here about some of the common themes that arise from childhood around eating and body image, with suggestions for parents for providing positive support.
Children that develop a healthy self-esteem will likely have the greatest resilience to managing pressures around food or body image. They will possess a tougher skin to handle the triggering environment, being less likely inclined to aim for perfection through body image or achievements.
As parents, you can help tremendously with self-esteem building by delighting and encouraging your child in the activities that they finds interesting. You can regularly acknowledge their unique qualities and character traits. You can listen to your child and pay attention to what they have said. Children can be under immense pressure to achieve academically and it easy for a child to begin to feel accepted for ‘what they do’ rather than for ‘who they are’. Although you can still value achievements, help your child to feel accepted just for being.
FOOD RULES AT HOME
We want to raise our children to eat nutritious foods and to take care of their bodies. However, when food rules in the house are too strict, this can create anxiety and a stronger desire for certain foods. Children raised with especially strict rules around eating, can be more at risk of secret eating, feeling ashamed or guilty for eating, and/or feeling a loss of control around food, when suddenly exposed to previously forbidden fare. Aim for balance in the home with eating and trust that your child can respond to their natural hunger and appetite.
BEING A ROLE-MODEL
You are your child’s role-model. If you regularly critique your body in front of your child; jump on and off the weighing scales and are openly dieting, your child will be absorbing these powerful messages. You might have your own personal struggles with food and your body (that’s okay) – try to minimise your child’s exposure to these though. You could always get support for yourself if you are finding these issues particularly challenging. Work to be proud of your body, whatever its shape or size, whilst encouraging your child to do the same. Help your child to value and respect their body for its strength and mobility, rather than focusing purely on aesthetics.
Validate your child’s emotions daily. These sounds so simple and straightforward but we often forget to do this. Possibly, you might find this hard to do for yourself so it can understandably feel unnatural to do this with your child. It is possible to learn this skill though. Validating emotions involves helping your child to express and name how they are feeling and then showing acceptance and acknowledgment of this. You don’t have to fix the situation or provide a solution, rather just being there for your child. If a child learns to express and manage their emotions, this is a golden gift for life. Your child will be at less risk of developing depression, eating for emotional reasons or restricting food to block feelings.
Have open conversations with your child about airbrushing, manipulation of images and the pressures on young people. You can talk openly about how some things can be triggering for negative body image, helping your child to develop a protective filter to the media bombardment. You can also support your child in considering their values and to like themselves for their many qualities, rather than just focusing too much on appearance.
As a parent, you cannot totally prevent issues with food or body image for your child. Life stresses will happen and events might occur that are totally beyond your control. Life is unpredictable and you can only do your best. It is important to be kind and compassionate with yourself in supporting your child. You can’t always ‘get it right’. Recognise your limits and seek additional help if needed.
When issues arise for your child, feeling beyond the capabilities of family and friends to support, counselling can be a beneficial option to consider. Early intervention can often prevent a smaller issue developing into something greater, and can provide emotional building blocks as a firm foundation for adult life.