10 Ways to Be a Body-Positive Parent — Jeana Cost

By Jeana Cost, MS, LPC, CEDS

Eating disorders, laxatives and muscle-building drugs are common in today's teenagers. Here are 10 ways to overcome these harmful trends.
Friends siting

I have a six-year-old son. He loves art and music and he wants to be a DJ when he gets older. About once a week, someone asks him to “show his muscles.”

I also have an eleven-year-old daughter. She is active and carefree and always confides in me. One of her last confessions was “candy makes your butt look big.” (She learned that at school).

So what have I learned from being a parent? That no matter how “body positive” I try to make my household, I can never control the outside world.

Laxative and muscle-building drug use by teens

I read a recent New York Times article by Perri Klass, MD, describing the increased use of laxatives and muscle-building products by adolescents. Usage is, sadly, common in adolescents and adults, and we are seeing it in young children as well.

The fact that laxative use is increasing in young females is terrifying. These substances, when used for the purpose of altering one’s weight or shape, are just as dangerous as drugs and alcohol. Not only are there short-term dangers like dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, but there are also long-term dangers associated with use like severe eating disorders, internal organ damage and cancer (Source: National Eating Disorder Association).

And let’s not forget about the boys. Eating disorders in males are skyrocketing and the use of muscle-building drugs in adolescence can put someone on the fast track to having disordered eating or body image issues.

We tend to focus on the striving for thinness and weight loss when we think about eating disorders, but we also need to consider the strive for weight gain via muscle mass. From a young age, boys learn that they are supposed to be “big and strong” — but why? My little artist son told me last week that he is only going to drink milk from here on because milk will make his muscles big. I kindly reminded him that big muscles aren’t a pre-requisite for being a DJ.

As parents, we can feel powerless. But there are small steps we can take that might make a huge difference for our kids. Here’s how.

Teach body-positive messages to your kids

  1. Model good behavior.
    Don’t talk about diets with your kids. Don’t complain about your weight, shape or size, and don’t talk about theirs, either. Talk about calories as fuel and energy and redirect the “F” word (fat).
  2. Focus on what your body DOES for you.
    Think about all the amazing things our bodies do each and every day and how different our lives would be if our bodies didn’t work.
  3. Focus on who you are, not what you are.
    It's important to identify and nurture the foundational elements that characterize us as individuals. Rather than strength of body, encourage your children to strive for strength of character. Instead of tirelessly pursuing a lean physique, exercise your intellect. Consider this: If you asked your children to describe themselves without using physical terms, what would they say? Would they talk about their compassionate heart or sense of humor? Are they proud of their integrity, passion or spirituality?
  4. Be open and intentional about the physical changes that are inevitable during puberty.
    Many kids are scared about the changes they are seeing and they don’t understand the big picture or how they will continue to transform past those initial stages. It is also important to remember that no two kids are alike and therefore comparing themselves to their peers isn’t helpful.
  5. Emphasize health -- physical, emotional and spiritual.
    Our culture widely equates health with desirable physical attributes -- specifically thin, lean, toned and muscular bodies. In reality, health spans physical, emotional and spiritual aspects and does not have a singular size or shape.
  6. Be open about social media.
    Sometimes it is inevitable that our kids will see unrealistic or inappropriate images in the media, especially as social media becomes more and more popular. Instead of avoiding these images, use them as a teaching moment about unrealistic expectations. Talk about Photoshop, health and values.
  7. Encourage your children to have passions.
    It is always sad when someone doesn’t know the answer to the questions: “What are you passionate about? What do you enjoy spending your time on?” Encouraging your children to focus on their values and passions gives them a direction and identity outside of their physical appearance.

IF your child is using laxatives or muscle-building formulas:

  1. Talk to them.
    Come from a place of love and concern, not anger or discipline. Ask them how they feel about their bodies and whether or not they’ve ever thought about altering their weight or shape. Make sure they know they have a safe place to be honest if they need to talk about anything.
  2. Have them evaluated by a medical provider.
    Regular checkups to monitor weight, bloodwork and other physical tests are an important piece to determining whether or not something dangerous is going on.
  3. Remember that you are their parent, not their friend.
    I frequently hear parents say they are scared to upset their child and therefore tip-toe around important issues. These can be life or death issues and your child’s safety and health needs to come first.

Professional help is available

As much as we hate to admit it, we as parents can’t do or be everything and sometimes we need to call in some help. Don’t hesitate to have an evaluation done by a professional if you suspect your child is in danger.

If you would like to talk to someone, please call us here at Eating Recovery Center at (877) 920-2902. We are happy to help.

body positivity
child & adolescent
jeana cost
Written by

Jeana Cost, MS, LPC, CEDS

Jeana Cost is the Vice President of Operations and Clinical Services of the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition. In her role, she is tasked with ensuring an excellent patient…

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