An Expert’s Thoughts on How to Raise Body-Positive Children

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Photo: Courtesy of Danielle Macinnes

With so many of us women struggling with body-image issues in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond, one has to wonder where it all started. When did we develop these negative perceptions of ourselves, and what could have been done differently in order to avoid this?

If you’re a mother, or hope to be one someday, chances are you’ve given quite a bit of thought to the kind of parent you want to be and to the values and lessons you want to impart on your children. But have you thought about your role in shaping their perceptions of themselves?

Goodness spoke to Dr. Carine el Khazen, Vice-President of the Middle East Eating Disorder Association, and a mother to two girls, about raising body-positive children.

At what age do children begin developing an image or opinion of themselves and their bodies?
It starts around early adolescence if no comment or emphasis has been made on their bodies as children. However, in cases where they have grown up in an environment that put a lot of emphasis on shape and weight, they will start developing body awareness and body-image issues as young as the age of six.

Laying the groundwork as parents primarily means being comfortable in our own skin and bodies.

When trying to raise a body-positive child, should you begin laying the groundwork before they’ve gotten to that point, or should you be more reactive and only comment when they’ve said something about their body? How proactive of an effort should this be?
Laying the groundwork as parents primarily means being comfortable in our own skin and bodies and avoiding commenting on body shapes and sizes – whether our own or somebody else’s. Comments on children’s bodies shouldn’t be based on weight or shape but rather on strength and skill (“You are so strong,” or “You play football so well”), but even those comments shouldn’t be obsessive and excessive.

Of course, if they start commenting on their own bodies, be ready to correct negative beliefs and perceptions and to reassure them that their bodies are perfect the way they are. These positive comments and correcting the negative image a child has of his or her own body are crucial, especially if the child is overweight. If children complain about their body size, it’s important to reassure them that they are in a period of growth and that, even if their body doesn’t seem quite right (to him or her) at this moment, it will be when the process of growth is over. No child should ever be on any diet, no matter what his or her weight is (even if the doctors recommend it “for medical reasons”). Being on a diet will trigger rebound binge-eating and eventually more weight gain and more “medical problems”. [On this topic, read the excellent book Why Diets Make Us Fat.]

If your child is, in fact, overweight, the attitude to have as parents at that point is to:

  • Make sure there is no secretive binge eating that could be responsible for weight gain (treating it should help the child stabilize his or her weight and, with growth, the weight should normalize).
  • Control the food intake by offering better nutritional quality of food, structuring with three meals and two snacks, avoiding munching and grazing, legitimizing “fun foods” and giving them in controlled yet daily portions.
  • Increase fun activities, like tennis, swimming, basketball, and martial arts, and decrease sedentary activities like video games.

These changes should be applied without fuss (don’t draw too much attention to what you’re doing) and to all the children and every member of the family – not only to the overweight child.

Let’s say you’re watching TV as a family. Should you purposefully point out certain things to your child, such as complement a woman’s body for looking healthy and strong?
Absolutely not.

Should you comment on someone who looks overly airbrushed?
Yes, to correct the unrealistic standards and to explain to your children that these are fake images that are made up. It’s very important to educate children on the images they see on social media or any media early on.

What, in their environment, has the greatest impact on this image?
Their parents’ outlook and perception of their bodies. Negative and positive comments coming primarily from parents, family, and school also play a large role in this. Even positive comments can be detrimental; they put an emphasis on the body and they reinforce the idea that it is positively valued to be thin and that, if your child is liked or praised, it is only because of a “good” body and not because of intelligence, humor, skills, etc. This is when a child’s self-worth becomes associated with being thin and this link is always what underlies every eating disorder.

What is the right message to communicate to children about their bodies?
That it is perfect the way it is, that it doesn’t need to be a certain shape or size because we all come in different shapes and sizes and we are all unique. It’s also important to emphasize the fact that bodies are to be respected and not changed to fit a specific societal mold. Explain to your child that respecting your body means treating it well by being active and nourishing it with nutritious foods most of the time, not by being thin. Teach health as an act of self-care and not as a means to lose weight, modify our bodies to please or be loved, or have self-worth. The most crucial point is to make sure the child doesn’t link her self-worth with her body shape, weight, or size, which is the starting point for all attempts to modify the body through diets or exercise.

Teach health as an act of self-care and not as a means to lose weight, modify our bodies to please or be loved, or have self-worth.

I’ve often heard people debate whether or not you should force your child to finish his or her plate. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m definitely against that! How can a child learn to trust his own body if you keep telling him that you know better than him what his body needs and force him to eat past full? Most of my binge-eating patients are children who were forced to finish their plates. After the binge-eating disorder is resolved, I help them kick that habit, which is most of the time responsible for overeating.

emotional nutrition by nayyirah waheed
'Emotional Nutrition' by Nayyirah Waheed

In the case of young girls who are bombarded and marketed to with this image of the “ideal body”, what can parents do to reduce the impact it has on their daughters?
Educate them on airbrushing and Photoshop. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign has excellent videos on the subject.

Are there any specific words or topics to avoid at home?
Nothing has to be taboo, but I recommend avoiding comments on your own body and eating habits, as well as other people’s weight, shape, and eating habits.

Similarly, are there certain practices that should be avoided, like having a scale in the bathroom?
Absolutely. I don’t recommend having scales at home and I discourage parents from weighing the child too frequently, weighing oneself in front of the child, or spending an undue amount of time in front of mirrors scrutinizing their bodies.

At home, what should the messaging be around food? If labels are to be avoided, like “good” and “bad”, how do you differentiate between the things you want your child to eat and the things you want them to avoid?
You teach them the difference between nutritious foods that provide energy and good health vs. “play foods” or “fun foods” that we eat only because they taste good. The “fun foods” don’t necessarily provide our bodies with the nutrients we need, but they will provide our brain with a sense of pleasure. You teach them about balance and the need to have a majority of nutritious food and some “fun food” that is perfectly healthy if eaten in moderation and as part of a varied diet. Any labeled or forbidden food will be desired and binged on eventually.

The result of a balanced and varied diet with no demonized foods will be a healthy and normal relationship to food with no cravings.

I also like to use the car analogy. It goes like this: The car needs gas to go from one place to another and so does your body. The difference, however, is that the human body can have different types of gas: the “nutritious gas”, which will allow the body/car to go faster and the “fun gas” that will feel nice to the body but won’t provide much energy. If you only put this kind of gas in, you are likely to feel more tired, less energetic, and more sluggish. If you have a combination of both, however, you will feel energetic and strong while enjoying every kind of food. The result of a balanced and varied diet with no demonized foods will be a healthy and normal relationship to food with no cravings.

No matter how careful you are to create a positive environment at home, it’s possible for children to pick things up from friends or from school. How can you balance the impact that this will have on them?
Yes, it is, but the home environment plays a bigger role. Children that have a healthy, body-positive home environment with no special emphasis and lectures on healthy eating and with no link between self-worth and thinness will be less vulnerable to those messages than children who come from an environment that puts a lot of emphasis on thinness and healthy eating.

Can parents who are themselves struggling with body image raise body-positive children?
It is possible to a certain extent. If parents are aware of their own struggles, they can make a point not to communicate their issues by avoiding certain behaviors and comments in front of their children.

Have you seen instances when parents will pass their own personal hang-ups onto their kids?
Yes, too often unfortunately.

What do you recommend in those cases?
To treat the parent’s eating disorder or body-image issue. If a parent isn’t ready, I will coach him or her extensively and as much as I can so that he or she doesn’t enable the child’s eating disorder with behavior like diet, excessive exercise, negative comments about one’s body, checking behavior, etc. Such behaviors are very detrimental to children in general and definitely can act as a trigger and as a perpetuating factor to a child struggling with an eating disorder and trying to recover.

What habits or signs should parents look out for as warning flags that their child is developing a negative body image?
Here is a list of things to look out for:

  • Negative comments about their body.
  • Avoidance behaviors, such as wearing only baggy clothes, refusing to wear swimsuits, or refusing outings because they feel like nothing suits them.
  • Checking behaviors, such as spending too much time in front of the mirror.
  • Constant negative comparisons with other children’s bodies, such as “Everyone is so much thinner or has a better body than me.”
  • Any expressed desire to lose weight or to modify their body.
  • Any change in diet such as dieting or cutting out “junk”, sugar, or fizzy drinks. Even if the child is overweight, this is the most important warning sign.
  • Any exercise routine at home, such as doing an abdominal routine every morning or evening or going on runs.
  • Any sports or exercise that is not part of a social, school or group activity.

Carine el Khazen is a Dubai-based clinical psychologist. She joined the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology in Dubai in 2011 as an eating-disorder and obesity specialist and set up a specialized multi-disciplinary out-patient Eating Disorders and Obesity program based on evidence-based models, which she currently directs. Along with her team, she has successfully helped children, adolescents, and adults recover from eating disorders and overcome obesity. She is also the Vice-President and head representative for the UAE of the non-profit association MEEDA (the Middle East Eating Disorders Association). She oversees and runs all of the association’s daily operations dedicated to raising awareness, supporting sufferers, and training the general public and professionals on the subject of eating disorders and obesity.

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