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Teaching healthy body image tips for kids

The weight loss industry is lucrative, and to make that money, its messages are everywhere. It’s hard to look anywhere without seeing recommendations about weight loss, the perfect look and ways to achieve your dream body. For kids (and adults), those messages can have a serious impact on body image. It’s important for parents to recognize and understand these pressures and help kids to have a healthy body image. Here are a few ways to help.

  1. Model positive body image. One of the best ways for kids to learn to love their bodies is by you loving yours. That can be both through words to yourself and actions. Kids will often see and hear what you are doing, and learn from you, even when you think they aren’t looking or listening.
  2. Eat a nutritious variety of foods. We know through research that diets don’t work, and in fact, often backfire and cause more harm, such as increased weight and disordered eating. So, instead, we want to teach kids their body needs fuel to do things like think, play, grow, be strong and feel good. And to fuel the body, we should feed it different kinds of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. Parents, please remember that no food is “good” or “bad,” it’s all just food. Different foods do different things in our bodies—that’s it.
  3. Treat bodies to regular movement. Moving and exercising in whatever way feels good and is enjoyable helps maintain that habit over time. Regular exercise can improve sleep, mood and even how brains work! This could be a family walk after dinner, a dance session to your favorite music during morning routine, 30 minutes at the playground or whatever exercise class you prefer.
  4. Show that bodies are supposed to be different. No two people look exactly the same (not even twins!). However, even with all that body diversity, it’s often hard for kids to understand that not all bodies are the same. We know this, but for children to understand can take some effort. Parents can help kids see how it’s a good thing that bodies are different by positively highlighting different body representations in TV shows, movies, magazines and books.
  5. Not all comments are good. Children who have weights that are too high or too low may receive comments about their weight or the amount of food they are eating. The comments are often intended to be supportive and encouraging but can feel like bullying. Bullying about weight can often result in negative consequences for physical and mental health. When in doubt, avoid commenting on the amount of food on a child’s plate or about their body or weight.

Teaching kids how to have a healthy body image is a shift from talking about diets, body dissatisfaction and weight loss to instead talking about loving oneself, praising differences and building healthy habits for lifelong physical and mental wellness. A healthy body image and helping kids feel good about the body they have can take time. It may feel like an overwhelming challenge, but it can be done with your support and love.

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Child Psychology

Child Psychologist, Weight Management; Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine