How to Help Kids Develop a Healthy Body ImageEverywhere we look we see ads showcasing the bodies of our cultural ideal—ultrathin women with bright smiles who radiate happiness, and powerful men with just the right amount of muscle who exude self-confidence. Kids are observant, and they pick up on these things. But no one is more influential to children than their parents, which makes it critically important that parents teach children that happiness and self-esteem come from being healthy, not from fitting the advertising industry’s mold. On the flip side, obesity is a major health problem in our country, and many consumers lack important information about healthy behaviors. By keeping a few things in mind, parents can help their children to develop a positive, healthy body image that they can carry with them through adolescence and adulthood.

    1. Model a healthy self-image. This is especially important for moms to keep in mind when they are around their daughters—don’t make self-deprecating comments or verbalize worries about your body. You’re human, so you might find yourself saying, “My butt looks huge in these pants!” or, “Ugh, I ate way too much pasta tonight.” Try to remember that your girls are watching and listening to everything you do, and you don’t want to normalize body-shaming comments. Instead, let your kids hear you make positive comments about your body, like, “I have so much energy today; I feel really great.”At the same time, it’s important to model balance and taking responsibility for one’s body. You might verbalize healthy food choices for your children so they can hear you work through a healthy thought process. For example: “I ate a couple slices of pizza for lunch (yum!), so I’m going to make sure I eat some vegetables and protein at dinner tonight.”
    2. Embrace diversity in body shapes and sizes. Everyone has an ideal weight range for their body, and it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to strive to be outside of that set range. Research shows that this is why diets don’t work for so many people—they strive to be a weight that’s outside of their set range, which sets off a cascade of neurocognitive, hormonal and metabolic problems. Instead, embrace the fact that we all have a different set range and help your children to strive to stay within theirs. Encourage your kids to be critical of unrealistic portrayals they see on TV or in social media: “Wow, everyone on this show looks the same. That’s not how it is in the real world.”
    3. Focus on health and wellness and less on fear and deprivation. When shaping kids’ behavior, it’s most effective to tell them what to do instead of what not to do—for example, “use respectful language” rather than “don’t be rude.” The same is true when it comes to health behaviors: focus on eating healthy foods that taste delicious and give us energy instead of on how bad candy is for us. It’s much more enjoyable to think about how to keep our bodies healthy and strong than it is to focus on prohibited foods. Explain to kids that our bodies need good sources of fuel, but balance in life is also important, so of course they should enjoy a piece of cake at their friend’s birthday party.Exercise should be enjoyable too, so frame all active behavior as doing something important and helpful for kids’ bodies. No one wants to exercise when it’s presented as a chore, so be creative and let kids burn calories and build muscles in ways that suit them, such as dancing, playing with their dog, building a fort, or dribbling a basketball. A good rule of thumb is to get kids away from screens, and you’ll see physical activity increase pretty dramatically.

By laying a strong foundation of healthy attitudes, parents can prepare their kids to enter adolescence, when body image issues skyrocket. We want our children to be confident that they have strong, healthy bodies in whatever size that is just right for them.

About Dr. Jamie Howard

Jamie M. Howard, PhD, is Child Mind Institute's Director of the Stress and Resilience Program; Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center.

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