Do children have body issues? Yes, and it starts (or ends) with you

Rany Moran on the key questions parents should ask themselves when nurturing body positivity in children.

By Rany Moran

Am I giving my child the right nutrients for brain development? Is he trying enough activities to hone new hobbies? Is she making friends in school? Shouldn’t he be writing by now? The list of worries that parents face is an endless and ever-evolving one—especially with toddlers in their crucial growth phases. But one worry that parents never expect to deal with, with kids at a young age, are body issues. Turns out, children are not as optimistic or carefree as we think, with new research showing concerns around their negative thoughts around their weight and how their bodies look.

According to the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), 24 percent of childcare personnel witness signs of body-related unhappiness amongst kids as young as 3 years old. That number almost doubles as children get older, with 47 percent identifying similar body image anxieties in 6- to 10-year-olds.

How can I prevent planting seeds of body anxiety?

How we talk to our children about beauty and bodies is crucial. But more importantly, it is how we talk to ourselves about it—because as parents, we are the first and main role models in their lives, and children internalise our words and actions more than we think. How we define what is strong and beautiful will go on to shape their thoughts and perceptions of what looks good, so nurturing a diverse outlook and a good level of self-confidence is vital.

So if your child sees you obsessing over calories, fat-burning workouts and the weighing scale, chances are, they will too. The same goes for if you’re constantly bingeing on junk food and lounging on the couch. How you carry yourself and live your life as a parent forms the building blocks of their daily habits and self-esteem, as they tend to mirror behaviours while exploring and absorbing the world around them. So instead of those extremes, focus on and talk about getting strong and healthy. Teach them how all foods fit in a healthy diet, with proteins, fruit and vegetables being just as essential as good fat—dessert included. Emphasising the positive outcomes of balance and satisfaction over the negative effects of restriction or indulgence is key. Plus, most children already follow the meal times and menus you give them, or otherwise eat intuitively naturally, so you can manage what they consume and how they understand what’s good for growing healthy and strong from a very young age.

How can I change negative thoughts to positive thoughts?

We don’t ever want our children to speak down to themselves or to others, let alone get affected by petty comments or potential insults passed by bullies at school. But sometimes, what they hear—be it from us parents, another adult, classmates or on the TV—will make them wonder if they too, should worry about their “double chin”, “big belly” or “flabby arms”. The key here is to keep a look out for the little signs: Are their eating habits changing? Is there a piece of clothing that they used to love but refuse to wear anymore? Do they stare at themselves in the mirror a lot? Are they disengaging from daily activities or social interactions? Once you see or simply sense something’s bothering them, address it immediately, with positive reinforcement. If they express the slightly concern about their legs, for example, tell them that those exact legs are what can score a soccer goal, or peddle their bike; or how their arms give the best hugs and help mummy carry all her favourite snacks. How we can all practice this at home is to spend one moment a week talking about something we love about ourselves—this contrary action combats negative thoughts, and can transform the way our kids see and speak to themselves, especially if parents open up about their strengths and not-so-weak “weaknesses” too.

How do I teach them that all bodies are beautiful?

When we nurture our kids to embrace diversity, we should also include body types. Have conversations with children about how everyone looks different—from their skin tone and hair colour, to their varying and ever-changing heights and weights. Normalise diversity in every sense, and how one should never expect anyone to look a certain or similar way, because that would be absolutely boring, wouldn’t it? More importantly, teach them to never judge another based on how they look, and how getting to know a person beyond their physical attributes will help them discover a whole new world of skills, talents and mutual hobbies—garnering them a brand new friend. Besides talking, expose them to a variety of real, unedited bodies of all shapes and shades through all sorts of media from YouTube videos to books on racial harmony and body positivity. This, versus always watching traditional celebrity-driven content that more often than not, glorify a particular look and standard of “beauty” or “masculinity”, which children can be hyper-attuned to.

How can I use positive reinforcement for character development?

Words of affirmation can do wonders for brain and character development. By praising their positive gestures, skills and words, we cultivate an environment that thrives on doing good—no matter how big or small. The easiest place to start is by watching a movie, and discussing the characters not by their looks but by what they are saying and doing, which will then hone that thought process of focusing on one’s personality or actions first, before outward appearances. At home, encourage problem solving, expressing of feelings, and exchanging opinions, while also praising them for their inner attributes, like persistence, kindness or newfound strengths after learning a new skill.

How can I use fun to cultivate self-confidence?

Feeling energised, getting stronger and having fun can have tremendous effects on how comfortable and confident they become with their bodies. Our role as parents is to first, be healthy ourselves with leading a fun, active lifestyle to expose our kids to a host of physical activities to let them explore, discover and sharpen their skills at. Some children are natural athletes and thrive in team sports, while others enjoy long bike rides with family, and there are those who might not prefer the outdoors but fall in love with dance. Give your kids a chance to try out different fitness styles and environments before zooming in on what they love. At the end of the day, if they’re breaking a sweat and having a ball, that’s all that matters.

How can I change our mindsets around the word “fat”?

Unfortunately, the word “fat” has a negative connotation to it. But what we need to relearn ourselves, and teach our children, are the different definitions of it. Food wise, we need to consume good fats, and our children need to know their existence in delicious and nutritious treats like nuts, avocados, salmon, eggs and every kid’s favourite: Cheese. When it comes to our bodies, fat isn’t a bad thing either—it’s actually an essential source of energy, it protects our organs, and keep us warm. Continue educating kids with the fascinating fact about how muscles weigh more than fat, so one should never focus on weight but how fulfilled they are after each meal, and how strong and energised they feel daily. When it comes to growing up, explain how our bodies change, both naturally and intentionally, and that we have the power to get big and strong with a healthy diet and an active lifestyle.