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How Does Your Body Image Affect Your Child?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
A number of studies in recent years have analyzed at the attitudes of parents towards their weight and looks, and how those attitudes influence their children. A new study of 4-year olds in Australia found that many have already picked up the message from their parents that fat is "bad" and muscle is "good". You might think that a preschooler is too young to be influenced by their parent's struggles with weight or their latest fad diet. But think again.

As they hear parents talk about foods that are "good" and "bad", many children become concerned about becoming fat. Another study found 6 and 7 year olds checking the nutritional labels on the food their parents pack for them. And a report from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services claims that 80% of girls in grades 3 - 6 have bad feelings about their bodies, an issue diverting attention from schoolwork and friendships.

Consider how the media can influence an adult's perception about what is "healthy". Healthy means thin, right? One of Stepfanie's recent blogs discusses celebrity weight gain and our expectations of what people in the spotlight should look like. If adults are easily influenced by what they see on T.V., in the movies, etc., imagine what kind of effect that has on young kids.

I wouldn't be surprised if these statistics were about teenagers, because that's a time of life when preoccupation with weight and appearance is common. But I am a little surprised at how young these body image issues start. It's important to be careful about how you discuss these issues with and around your kids. If you're telling them that it's what's on the inside that matters most, but then you're making comments about being unhappy because you're "fat", what kind of message are you really sending?

Do studies like this surprise you? What kinds of things are you doing to instill positive and healthy habits in your children? How do you try to teach your children to be accepting instead of critical of who they are and what they look like?

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PATRICIAANN46 5/6/2020
Thank You..................I have 2 Grand-daughters ages 12 & 7. Their mom works out on a regular basis and the girls often work out with her. With no school at present, they have 3 half hour periods during each day for some type of physical activity. She is also very conscious of what they eat and they have snacks like fruit or cheese or cut up veggies on hand. I truly admire how she is raising them because she is stressing physical fitness but not putting a lot of emphasis on weight at this point in their lives. They are very talented in many areas and that is what they are praised for.............not how much they weigh. They are both very healthy and very fit. The 7 year old is small-boned and tiny and the 12 year old is very athletic. Report
YMWONG22 2/22/2020
Great article. Report
I never really thought of it Report
Great article. Thanks Report
Children are like sponges and they do what they see others doing. If we don't feel good about ourselves, how would we expect our children to feel?!?!? Teach the children so they can be better adults. Thanx for the insight. Report
When I started (again) back in Oct 2011 I was still working full time and either didn't or couldn't find the time for a long workout. The suggestion to take short walks worked for me. Instead of a smoking break I'd take walking breaks during the day and took every opportunity to walk. Also started taking my lunch to work and over time made that even healthier with lots more veggies. Report
I already do most of these, my challenge is getting enough sleep. Getting enough sleep is not my MO...insomniac since birth. But for sure, planning ahead makes the difference. Report
I only recently (in the past 8 years) have become more active, and now my son is in Taekwondo. He loves fruit and will try any vegetable I give him; he adores Smart Water, too. We are on a journey as a family, but I haven't been really strict about a regimen. Report
My mom was extremely active - running marathons. While I wasn't athletic as a kid, it did make it seem normal for people to invest significant amounts of time in fitness, which has certainly been helpful even all these years later in my own lifestyle change! Report
This is so true! My mother exercised when I was young; however, MS left her in a wheelchair. All of our family was very active. She encouraged us to eat vegetables and fresh fruits.

As my daughter has grown up, I've encouraged eating the right foods and all things in moderation. She enjoyed swimming and now swims on the High School Swim team. She knows swimming, cycling and running are activities that she can do even when she's an adult.

As parents, we should encourage good eating habits and a positive life style. We also need to help our children understand that not everyone can be thin. We should strive for doing the right things for our bodies. Report
I have two children. A daughter who is 5 and a son who is almost 4. My son is at the point that he notices I am overweight and has made comments and tries to push his belly out to look like mine. I tell him that my big belly makes me unhealthy and not feel good and that I am trying to make good choices by eating well and exercising. My daughter doesn't seem to notice or at least she doesn't say anything yet. Luckily for me, my children love vegetables and fruit. My struggle is getting my son to eat any type of protien(meat, beans, etc.) Most of the time. I have learned not to make a big deal of it. I put a balanced meal on his plate, and he chooses how much and what to eat. It is my job to decide when meal time is, and what foods I will serve, but it is my children's job to regulate what and how much they eat. I think by allowing the to be in control of thier body and following thier own hunger cues, helps them to have more control as they get older, in turn making it easier to make healthy choices. My children have always loved to run, play ball and dance. Now that I am working out, I do these things with them and they think mom is just having fun with them. I prefer this as to saying I am exercising to lose weight or make my body look better. I think as a society and as parents, we need to take the emphasis off of the scale and perfect body size and style and instead focus on healthy choices and having our body be at a place where we feel good and we are healthy. As for someone telling my child they need to workout or lose weight. If you are not a parent of my child, it is none of your business the shape my child is in. Second of all, if you don't know the situation as to why a child may be out of shape, it is best not to say anything. We can all remember our parent's and other people saying things to us when we were a child that still make us feel bad about ourselves. NO person has a right to cause that for a child. Hurtful words today, lead to things like bulimia, anorexia, being overweight, and many other health concerns. If you genuinely have a concern about the child, speak to thier parent when the child can not hear what is being said. Report
I've seen it in my sisters' families where the girls learned the most important thing in life is to be thin and look pretty. They became obsessed with this concept and looked down their noses at anyone who didn't fit that concept. It even led to bulimia in one. Parents must be careful of the roles they play in the lives of their children. Report
I sometimes feel guilty for the way I see myself, knowing that my daughter will soon face the pressures of society. I have been trying to re-word my complaints to say that I need to get in shape, rather than I am fat. She encourages me to go to the gym to get healthy, and we like preparing and eating healthy meals together. She is a sponge though, so I constantly have to remind myself to watch what I say. Report
ahhh this one makes me so mad....I remember at age 10 making a hot cocoa on a cold winter day after being outside making a snowfort and my dad saying if you drink that you will get fat. I hate it when parents insecurities are all they talk about. My neighbor talks about her body all the time and I have overheard her daughter (age 6) talking about going on a diet. Now I am fine with teaching your kids to be healthy and develop healthy habits now. BUT COME ON!!!! People let your insecurities go. I am happy with who I am so I have extra pounds I am teaching my daughter to LOVE HERSELF no matter how the outside appears to others. Report
If someone told my child to get into shape, that would be very disturbing. My child is over weight but very solid. He plays soccer, baseball, and is always in some kind of physical game play to keep him steady where he is at in his weight, and if he loses a few pounds while playing that is great too! Kids have called him fatty and such, but his charming personality keeps his head up. People look at him and thinks he overeats and if he is having an unhealthy snack, that it is all he eats because they are looking at him from the outside. He loves corn, greenbeans, and wheat bread and all the other healthy stuff but occasionally would like to enjoy a sundae without being stared at. But, we are talking about a child that has asthma. He coughs constantly during his bad days and throws up from coughing so hard. His weight is reasonably controlled, but always on the hefty side because of steroids that is in his medication. He takes allbuterol and flovent and is now taking singular. He also has take prednizone. Kids who take medication can have their weight controlled, with healthy involvement in sports and good eating habits, but medication still plays a big part in their health when it involves steroids. So, please consider that you do not always know why a child is overweight. It is so cruel to tell a a child to get in shape, when they know they have a problem, and they are doing everything they can to help what they eat and what kind of activities they play in, to help themselves. And, from what I have experienced myself, if you have never been a mother or a father, you have no bussiness saying anything about anyone else's child! Report
My daughters all look great the way they are but I would be honored if they would join SPARK PEOPLE for the health benefits it offers. Report
Frankly, I think it is a great idea to educate children on healthy eating and exercise. However I do think there is a way to show by example, a good way, to teach our children this. I realize I am sometimes guilty of this, I do not think its a good idea to speak poorly about a my own or any persons image. The better approach is to change what you are giving your child as a parent. I had a horrible body image as a child. I was always the "fat" child. Thing was, not a single other family member in my immediate family had a weight problem, my parents approach seemed to be more about telling ME I needed to lose weight. I always thought it confusing that it was okay for them to eat one thing but me something else. The better approach would have been for my parents to change what everyone ate, making better food choices as a family and limiting portion control for me. My mom made everything homemade, we had fruits and veggies and balanced meals, the problem was always portion control. And I found out later in life some health issues.
I recently had a cousin tell me that her son told her she looked fat today. I felt horrible for her but thought it her own fault. She should be teaching her child that it isn't right for him to say such things. To her or others. I can only imagine what he would be or is, saying about me if he thinks his mother is "fat". She is a perfect weight for her height and always dresses and carries herself well.
This is one thing I definitely feel is important to teach your children.
My 2 year old asks if Mommy and Daddy are working out today. He knows its a good thing and at 2 trys to mimick what we are doing in a workout. That is pretty normal for a child. Good thing is he sees how good it is for you and sees that we find it enjoyable.
My mom's obsession with weight and yo-yoing and constant comments about my appearance have had a profound effect on me. I have had bouts of bulimia, anorexia, body dismorphia, food obsession, and now therapy and anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medications. I am so careful not to do this to my kids, especially my daughter. She is starting puberty and I am being the mom to her that I wish I had. She is so beautiful and perfect to me no matter what size she is now or becomes, I never insult her or talk to her about my own body dissatisfactions. I can see how vulnerable she is and how easily a child can be scarred by that nonsense. I teach them to make the healthiest choices possible, to be active and they are both fit and healthy. Report
My kids are very, very active. And yes, they notice everything I do. My son likes to get on my laptop and "enter my food" for me. I do not teach them that foods are good or bad but rather healthy or unhealthy. Like someone else said, I'm trying to teach them to eat smaller portions of the unhealthy foods and larger portions of the healthy ones.

I have always gone with the "don't make it so special" train of thought. I will put the fruit snacks or the cookie or the chips on the plate at the same time with all the other more healthy foods. I don't put a premium on the "treat" item. This has worked well for me; It's not uncommon for my two year old daughter to have carrots or some sort of veggie, sandwich, fruit and a few chips on her plate and she'll usually hit the veggie first... then the fruit, then the chips, then the sandwich. My son will hit the fruit first. They never gobble up their whole plate and I don't ask, expect or want them to. I do ask my son to drink his milk but other than that I don't put pressure on their eating.

Because of my lifelong struggle with weight, I am trying to be a very intentional parent when it comes to food issues!!!

I have also made sure I don't make negative comments about my body... I don't want them picking up that I think my gut is too big when I should be teaching them that their body does so many wonderful things... they are only two and five but it seems to be working so far. Report
My husband and I are both heavy; a recent thing as we used to be much thinner not that long ago. Both of my children have learned in school about healthy and not healthy eating. They are very aware of what my husband and I eat - and they do comment. However, we have talked openly about body image and how it is better to be healthy then focused on being thin. As I have dropped a little bit of weight, my son gives me the best encouragement!! He is very supportive of my efforts and understands that sometimes adults get busy and it becomes harder to lose weight (or keep weight off). He is focused on active kids and active adults. My daughter thinks she is too thin! Report
My daughter who is perfectly proprotioned for her height and weight is asking me if she can join SparkPeople. She's noticed my efforts and thinks that she needs to do the same. Can't tell if she thinks she is facing a bad body-image (she won't answer that question when I ask her). But, it is disconcerting to think that someone who has a healthy body type is being influenced by what I do. I'm trying to be very careful to make sure she knows I'm trying to make healthier choices both physically and mentally. Report
Yes, My 3 1/2 year old picks up on every thing i do or say so lets just say we have learned to be more positive and upbeat about things! Thank you for the article Report
The study is no surprise to me. I have been a teacher for about 19 years, and during these years, I have taught infants through high school. I have read a lot about childhood issues throughout my years as an educator. Parents play an enormous role in forming the prejudices and beliefs of their children. In fact, studies show that children have all of their biases and preferences by the age of four. That doesn't mean, however, that this predisposition cannot be changed. It would take several years or a very emotional experience to change any of the biases formed during those tender first four years of life. Many adults think that their young children do not listen to their adult conversations. It may appear that the children are just playing as you discuss religion, politics, sex and other issues. Maybe they don't catch every word, but we all have things that we talk abou repeatedly. Those things affect children. Everyone has biases and it comes out in the way we actually talk to our children as well. Our children go to Kindergarten carrying with them the biases passed down to us from our parents, as we did before them. Report
I don't have kids, but I certainly know that I picked up on my parents' cues when I was a child, especially my mother's. I remember her always complaining about being fat, going on diets and picking at her foods in despair. I learned from her how impossible it is to control weight, how much despair and deprivating dieting causes, how horrible healthy food must taste. I don't ever recall either of my parents exercising, it is not something that gave them pleasure. Our lives were experienced through a car window.

It's taken me many many years to undo all of those lessons. You moms out there... you have tremendous power over the lives and health of your children. Be good examples to them! Report
My 5'2" 12 yr old son HAD to stay below 100 lbs to play on his football team, if he went over it meant playing with the older kids. Not only does he see me struggling to stay at a reasonable weight but now at this young age he has been forced into "starving" weight off the day before game weigh ins and worrying about calories all the time. He would be about 105 if left alone and is NOT fat. I just hate to see things like this at his young age. It just isn't healthy.The only up side is he gets a ton of excersize. Report
If you should happen to know a young/teen girl who is preoccupied with body image, have them go to the dove site (obviously if old enough to) or go there yourself....there some great information there, mentor programs etc. Report
My 8 yr old niece made a disturbing comment while we were on vacation last week - "if I get fat, I'll just stop eating". She is very active, skinny as a rail and can eat anything (but she eats it in moderation).- I worry about when she hits the teen years and her hormones go crazy. Report
I try and always mention how healthy a food is, and if we have something that is not healthy (french fries, etc.) I caution my boys to eat a small amount. Both ignored me for years, yet I continue. Just this year it has seemed to "sink in" and one son told me he wanted to lose some weight (he's 17) and would eat whatever I gave him. After 4 months of choosing his food, he's choosing it himself and making great choices. Our younger son (15) is seeing the results his brother got (lost 25 pounds along with starting a workout program) and is now on the bandwagon. Next --- my husband!!! Report
Telling a child who in YOUR opinion is overweight to do something about it, is VERY CRUEL! How do you know what the reasons are for their weight? It could be medication [steroids for example] it could be because they are being abused in some way and their unhappiness is showing in their weight. Thats the trouble with people these days, they make snap decisions based on looks, how shallow is that? They should be ashamed of themselves, DONT jump to conclusions and certainly dont tell a kid to get in shape, thats dreadful and callous and uncaring! Report



I can completely see where they are true on this issue. A few months ago I had my 3 yr old in mcdonalds and a little boy about 5 blurted out "hey mom look at that big fat lady" I wasnt upset at the child but i was at the mom b/c she didnt correct him. that is the kind of thing that as a parent we have to be careful of teaching our children Report
I can see how this can affect kids. One of my children gets teased for being "fat" and it it is untrue. It really hurts her feelings... Report
My mother wanted me and my brother to sit down, be quiet and NOT get dirty, so I was NEVER encouraged to exercise. I have taken my children to the park, swimming pool and Judo since they were very small, so they learned to like being fit. Tonight my one son is doing P90X work out. It is all about encouragement. Report
Interesting article. Report
I am not surprised about these studies. Even as a child, I remember feeling bad about how my body looked. My mom was a profressional dieter who was constantly trying to lose weight. Now that I have children of my own, I try very hard to stress healthy living to my kids instead of weight. We don't even have a scale in the house. Report
Lets not forget about how the other children at the school our children attend can also have an negative affect. Being called fat and whale by your classmates can wreak havoc on anyone's body image. Report
I recently discovered how my self image is affecting my 11 year old. She is already 5'2" and weighs between 90 and 100 lbs and says she's FAT!! I told her just because she hears me say that about myself doesn't mean she has to worry about it. She is going to be really tall like her father, but she's very energetic so she won't be fat! My seventeen year old is skinny as a rail and complains about that. I told her to enjoy it because if she ever has a baby, she'll be on the other end of the weight spectrum! Report
My kids think that we must go to the gym everyday (MOn-Fri) so they keep me on track. They are 5 and 3. I have had eating issues when I was in high school, college and sometime after having kids I realized how amazing my body was. I think partly b/c I just keep going and realize I don't have to be a size 0 to be sexy. I can have a small chest and short stature and still love myself. Exercise is the key. I just love to see how fast I can run or how hard I can work and the way it makes me feel when I am done.
Running my first marathon (when my oldest was just 15 months) with a great friend really helped that too.
I just want to keep my healthy, fit body as long as I can so I can always get out and play with my kids and friends.
I see my husband struggle with pain in his knees (sports injuries and surgeries, now arthritis) and he has some weight to lose. I don't know how to help him have a more positive outlook. Report
I have read stories commenting on the percentage of young girls in ELEMENTARY school who think they're "fat" and eat restrictively as a result. It's really, really sad. And damaging. Report
Just to clarify- I'm aware that I'm sending a mixed message to my son, but I'm not sure how to correct whatever damage I might be doing, if I'm doing any damage. I endeavor to make sure that he gets fruit and veggies each day without resorting to sneaky chef techniques. His preschool is doing a wonderful job of introducing a variety of local healthy foods at snack time, and I'm following their lead. Report
Ahhh! I've been sending my child mixed messages. At almost 4, he's a VERY picky eater, so I've continued to serve him full fat yogurt and full fat milk to ensure that he gets enough calories but continue to try to introduce new foods to him. Since I'm measuring what I'm serving myself and refusing to eat certain things that my husband will eat, why shouldn't he also refuse, particularly if its something that he thinks he won't like.

On the other hand, we find great ways to get in exercise...raking leaves and jumping into the piles is a recent favorite activity, but he also loves to do yoga with me or run around the house with me as we fly robots. But he doesn't like it when I leave the house to go for a run. Report
I don't complain about my weight or how I feel like I look in front of my kids, no matter how awful I feel about myself sometimes. And I don't comment on other people's weight issues. My husband is another story. I tell him that it isn't healthy for our kids (6 and 7) to hear this, but he thinks this will keep them from getting fat. Getting them outside to play every single day and serving hot freshly cooked balanced meals. That's what they need to be healthy. I'm so sad about kids so young worrying about this. Report
I agree. It shouldn't be a problem to teach kids good eating habits & the importance of exercise at an early age if we go about it in a healthy manner. BUT I know many women who are always constantly complaining about their bodies & how they are fat (when they are a healthy weight). Obviously that is going to have a huge negative impact on children who are looking up to their parents as role models. They are thinking 'if mommy thinks shes fat & she looks how she does then I must make sure I don't get that way too'. It's very sad. I wish our society didn't have such a negative body image... Report
I am not surprised as more and more girls are getting eating disorders at younger ages. Which is so sad! As long as parents show their kids how fun it is to be active and strong versus being thin and "perfect" eaters, they are on the right track. Report
I had this conversation elsewhere on the web recently -where someone was talking about a 7 year old girl who was clearly on her way to an eating disorder -she obsessively counted calories and wouldn't eat certain foods... Now at that age - I KNOW that it was coming from a parent.. .I see it in so many places - usually the mother -will prepare a different meal for herself -and feed the family something different, and mom will go on about how fat she is and how she can't eat that or anything - kids aren't stupid -they see all this and it does affect them...

My 7 and 9 year olds are very food and exercise conscious, they even comment to each other about picking healthy snacks. Report
"80% of girls in grades 3 - 6 have bad feelings about their bodies"

That makes me feel so sad for our girls, but in a society that so weight obsessed it doesn't surprise me either. Considering I had spent well over 35 years myself working on 'losing weight' and not embracing a healthy lifestyle, I wish I had the wisdom and knowledge that I do today back then. Report
We have always talked nutrition in our house. I have some dietary issues that make it imperative that food labels are read. I usually have my girls join me in yoga, or walking. I stress balance overall .. not too much of anything. I hope that message is getting across. I also talk about body image and how false the pictures on magazines are. I've shown them pictures of before and after airbrushing so they can see how they are altered. Now they are quick to point out obvious airbrushing. Report
My Lily is 4 and she will only eat the healthy stuff because that is all I eat. Don't get me wrong, we do treats, but they are treats not staples. She loves to go to the gym with me and work out with me. We love to go jogging which is basically me chasing her around the park ~ it is SO FUN! Report
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