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"Mom, am I fat?

This past week, one of my clients asked me for advice on how to talk to her adolescent daughter about body image. Around Christmas, a little boy in her daughter’s class had called her “fat.” Her daughter had been mulling over this unkind comment for a couple of months on her own, but when she was ready, she broached the topic with her mom. When we build trust with our children through healthy connections, they will come to us for advice and trust us to guide them through difficult times.

It’s heartbreaking to see our child’s feelings hurt by a peer. We work so hard to fill our children with love, to boost their self-esteem, to cherish them and let them know how amazing they are. But when our children wander into the world on their own, as they should, they will meet people who are unkind or even cruel. We live in the hope that we can love them enough that they will be strong when faced with the harshness of others. We want them to be resilient and have the self-confidence to believe in themselves and have a healthy self-esteem.

Each one of us has memories of a time we were left out or teased by other children, we will remember the words that were said and the way that it made us feel. We may even feel a hot blush of shame when we hear words like “fat” because they are the same words that have wounded us. Working with families, I have observed that many times parents are still processing their own childhoods and intense feelings will ignite as parents deal with past trauma. It’s important to separate what happens with your child from what happened to you. When we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of our children, we make assumptions about their thoughts and feelings, and these assumptions hinder us from seeing clearly. Take some time to hold space for your memories, recognize what is triggering you, look with kindness on your younger self and thank that person for getting you where you are now. Once you have taken the time to compassionately sit with your younger self, take a deep breath and ground yourself in your body now, then look at the situation with open eyes. If you find your perspective clouding up, use a teacher or family friend for guidance and trust their viewpoint of the situation.

One reason why it’s important for us to put our biases aside is because if we are uncomfortable with our feelings, we may inadvertently shut down the conversation, especially when we are dealing with loaded words like “fat.” We may dismiss a question by saying, “You’re not fat,” “Don’t worry about it,” “You’re perfect to me”. When you gloss over a topic, it doesn’t reassure your child, instead it teaches her that it is shameful to talk about. Instead, be curious. Ask your child open-ended questions about how he is feeling, what his thoughts are, and what questions he might want to ask you. When you encourage dialog with your child, you are opening the door for open conversation not just for this topic, but for others. Your child will come to you when she has questions about her changing body, sex, and other grown-up topics. Ask your child, “What do you think?” “What does ‘fat’ look like?” “What do you want to say if someone hurts your feelings?” “What questions do you want to ask me?” In addition to having a dialog with your child, there is more that you can do to help encourage self-esteem and positive body image with your child.

Be a Role Model

Our children are master imitators, they observe and copy us. Even if you aren’t using words like “fat,” do you frown at yourself in the mirror? Suck in your tummy? Grumble when trying on clothes that no longer fit? For our children to develop healthy self-esteem, they need to see us being comfortable with our bodies. Take care not to inadvertently give children messages that our bodies are shameful. Watch the words you use and your tone. If you say, “I can’t believe I ate all of that!” “Are you really going to eat another slice?” “You can’t still be hungry!” you are teaching your child that food is bad and eating too much is unbecoming. This may cause children not to eat when they are hungry or to hide what they are eating. Instead, focus on health and nutrition. “I’m going to eat this apple because it has lots of fiber and will help my body feel its best.” “This broccoli has lots of potassium which will help my heart stay healthy and keep me strong.” “It’s okay to have a sweet treat once-in-awhile, but I know that lots of sugar is bad for my teeth.”

Focus on Health, Not Size

We know that there are certain things we should eat to keep our bodies running strong and other foods we would be wise to avoid. Teach your child about good nutrition. Our plate should be made up of vegetables and fruit, plenty of whole grains, healthy lean protein, and milk, yogurt, or other dairy options. Highly processed foods are not as healthy as freshly prepared food. Foods and drinks that are high in sugar should be consumed in moderation. We can talk to our children about what their strong bodies can do when they fuel them with the right foods. Encourage healthy eating habits, slow down, focus on your food instead of eating while multi-tasking, help your child listen to their body for signs of hunger or fullness. Don’t use food as punishment or a reward, “You will get candy if you listen at the grocery store,” “No dessert if you keep fighting with your brother.” Food should be something we use to fuel our bodies, not as a way to deal with feelings or behavior. We can make exercise and being active fun, not a chore we are doing to help us slim down. Your child has lots of energy and is also learning balance and coordination. Take the stairs, do yoga, challenge your child to do twenty jumping jacks. Games and other physical activities are also a great way for your child to make friends and develop executive functioning skills.

Be Mindful of Social Media

Everywhere we look, we are flooded with images, many of which are photoshopped and give us an unrealistic expectation of what we should look like. Talk to your child about how they are seeing people portrayed in magazines, television, and computer screens, let them know that these are not accurate representations of what people look like. Talk about accepting all types of people in all types of sizes. Be aware of what your child sees so you can talk to them about the images and content they are consuming.

Nurture Their Self-Esteem

Remember that the world is not always kind. As your child’s first teacher, you have an opportunity to help them form resilience and develop a healthy self-esteem. It starts with connection. When we spend quality time with our children, fill them with love, and offer unconditional acceptance, we are nurturing a child who can grow into a confident adult. Give them specific praise, spend time with them when you are not on your phone and can give your child your full attention, listen to them and really hear what they are saying. Look for the question behind the question. Remind them that beauty is more than skin deep, let them know that it’s what they do that’s important, not how they look. Be aware of gendered language. Although boys, girls, and children who identify as nonbinary, all have concerns about how they look, we are more likely to point out appearance with females, “What a pretty dress,” “I love your hair,” while commenting on actions with males, “You’re so good at sports,” “You can run so fast.”. Make sure girls also know that they can be athletic and strong. Finally, appreciate when your child comes to you. Thank her for expressing herself, ask questions, and be open-minded. When you respond to your child without judgement and engage honestly in a way that fits their stage of development, you are keeping the door open for future conversations.

When to Get Help

We live in a society where appearance is prized so it’s normal for your child to compare themselves with others or fear being judged, but sometimes our child’s questions are signs of something more. If your child is showing signs of dieting, being overly concerned with food, hiding food, or you believe your child is being bullied, these are signs that you need to get additional help. Discuss your concerns with your child’s teacher and pediatrician, they can help guide you with next steps.

During their early years, children are forming their identity, they are developing self-esteem and body image concepts, and they are learning how to be healthy adults. Our job is to teach children healthy habits, learn about nutrition, and enjoy physical fitness. The way we feel about ourselves influences the way we feel about the world and our place in it. Developing healthy self-esteem will help your child gain confidence, make friends, and feel good about themselves. We are role models for our children. We need to practice acceptance, teach our children that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and have open conversations with our children, as well as inviting their questions or concerns.

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Wow! Such a powerful discussion. This is such a thoughtful response.

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