Helping Kids Maintain Healthy Weight and Positive Self-Image

A happy mother is giving her daughter an apple

We all know the saying “Food is love.” But for many people, including children, food can be seasoned with guilt, shame, and unhappiness. Add the shock of stepping on the scale after a holiday of feasting, and you have a sure recipe for an unhealthy self-image, not to mention indigestion.

If you’re determined to lose weight in the new year or to help an overweight child lose weight, be sure to include nurturing a healthy self-image in your plan.

As parents, we want to do the best for our kids—and often that starts with feeding them right. No, this is not about organic vs. the occasional Big Mac. Nor is it about the alarming trend of obesity in children. It’s about the importance of instilling smart behaviors now so your children can grow into adults with healthy bodies and a healthy sense of body image and self-confidence.

How can you nurture a child’s healthy self-image? And how can you guide an already overweight child toward a healthy body and a healthy self-image?

1. There's no better role model for your daughter—or son—than you. Are you constantly denigrating your body (or others’)? Obsessing about dieting or exercise? Think about what you say and what your child may be picking up from all that negative body talk.

2. Take a positive approach. Look to build children’s self-esteem by showing how to identify Photoshopped or otherwise altered images that distort actual bodies. (Hint: a flawlessly smooth contouring line at the waist, hip, or thigh is a dead giveaway that there’s been some digital plastic surgery going on.)

Find a physical activity you both enjoy and can do together for bonding, not just exercise.

And please, oh please, bite your tongue before you nag, punish, or lash out in fat-shaming, no matter how frustrated you may get. It can leave emotional scars that take a lifetime to heal.

3. Make meals a celebration, not a battle. Family time is precious. Serve healthy foods in healthy portion sizes, but don’t make an issue out of who’s eating what and how much.
Sure, don’t bring junk food into the house. (Seriously, who has willpower enough to resist it?) But, more importantly, talk about something other than food or weight. Treat the dinner hour as sacred.

4. Don’t label foods “good” or “bad.” There are healthier foods and not so healthy foods. Eating “bad” foods can make an overweight child feel guilty, ashamed, “bad.” Next time your child eats something less than ideal, say, “Was it good? Did you enjoy it? And what were you really hungry for? Was it food? Or something else, like a hug?” Encouraging children to become more mindful about their thoughts and feelings helps them to tune into their bodies and emotion—and to respond to their emotional needs in more appropriate ways than by eating.

5. Listen for the subtext. When your child comes to you and asks, “Am I fat?” don't answer right away. Think about the context. Maybe it’s a way to start a conversation about something else in life that’s bothering him or her, and weight is just an easy conversational hook.

Whatever the motivation, listen and find a way to reassure your kids and prove to them that they can talk to you, that your love is not conditional upon numbers on a scale. Start building that trust today so they can talk to you throughout their lives.

6. Love means always being able to say you're sorry. We always want to do right by our kids, and when it comes to weight, we don’t want to say the wrong thing. But when you do say the wrong thing, don’t be afraid to follow it up with “I’m sorry.” Apologize sincerely and work to find a more loving and helpful way to address the problem (e.g., by talking about health, not weight. and about confidence, not calories.)

Today’s guest blogger, Susan Bodiker, is the founder of One Girl Wellness, a health-coaching consultancy dedicated to “raising stronger women one girl at a time.” She works with women on issues of weight and self-esteem and helps them make peace with their bodies by learning how to love and heal themselves.

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