Parents, we encourage you to model healthy behaviors, particularly if you are pursuing weight loss and fitness goals.
As millions of Americans resolve to lose weight, parents’ new diet and fitness regimens may have an unintended, negative outcome — triggering disordered eating behaviors or body image issues in their children.
Because children often will mirror what they observe in their adult counterparts, we urge parents to be mindful with their food- and body-focused words and behaviors while undertaking New Year’s resolutions.
“Children and teens are very susceptible to picking up value judgments about body shape and size,” said Elizabeth Easton, PsyD, clinical director of Child and Adolescent Services at Eating Recovery Center. “If we teach them – through dieting, over-exercise behaviors and critiques of our own bodies – that there is a ‘good’ body type, then that is exactly what children will strive for at all costs if they are susceptible to an eating disorder or poor body image.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, weight and body consciousness among children begins at very young ages, with research finding that:
- 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat
- 46 percent of 9- to 11-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets
- More than one-third of “normal dieters,” many of whom begin dieting at young ages, progress to pathological dieting, a condition marked by continual dieting and from which 20 to 25 percent of individuals develop eating disorders.
When considered alongside a recent Thomson Reuters and National Public Radio poll, which reveals that one-third of Americans have made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight in the last five years, this research illustrates the perfect storm parents can unknowingly initiate by adopting aggressive or unhealthy weight loss regimens.
We encourage parents to follow these four tips to model healthy behavior, help their children embrace healthy attitudes about their bodies and minimize the chances that children will adopt negative thoughts and behaviors related to food and body image.
1. Do not diet.
Instead, resolve to eat healthier, well-balanced meals. Through their own behaviors, parents can teach children how to focus on moderation without rigidly labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”
2. Shift your perspective on exercise.
Instead of looking at exercise as a dreaded weight loss tool, approach it as a fun activity for feeling good and improving overall health. Plan family outings and activities and children will follow their parents’ example.
3. Be aware of comments you make about your body.
Children are far more astute than parents may give them credit for, and they often mirror observed behaviors. Offhand comments about having a “fat day,” failing at your weight loss resolution or feeling too snug in an old pair of jeans can have a bigger effect on a developing child’s body image than many may think.
4. Be aware of comments you make about others.
Criticizing others for “gaining a few pounds” over the holidays or complimenting someone for resolution-driven weight loss can lead children to believe that there are “good” and “bad” body shapes and sizes.
“Because eating disorders have a genetic component, children with a family history of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder are particularly susceptible to negative diet- and body-focused words and actions,” explains Dr. Easton. “In these children, seemingly innocent body image comments or dieting behaviors can quickly spiral out of
Parents are encouraged to seek an eating disorders assessment if they notice troubling food- or body image-oriented behaviors in their children. Recovery is entirely possible with early intervention and proper eating disorder treatment from qualified professionals.