By Debra K. Waranch, LCSW-C
I was a guest at a birthday party for a nine-year-old, when the cake was brought out. There were your usual oohs and aahs, but they were overshadowed by several girls saying they couldn’t eat the cake. It wasn’t because they didn’t like cake — quite the opposite. One girl said, “I like it too much…I’ll get fat… I’ll lose my friends.” Another agreed: “Cake is bad…especially the icing…don’t eat it! You’ll get fat.”
Parents, listen up! These girls are nine years old! What will they think and sound like in middle school and high school? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a 2008 survey, found that 80% of girls in grades three to six displayed body image concerns and dissatisfaction with their appearance. Nor are boys immune from these preoccupations.
What can we do? First, we need to teach our kids to expect growth and change as they develop. They need to understand that each of us grows at her or his own pace, and we grow differently from our classmates and friends. Everyone goes through awkward stages physically, as well as emotionally and cognitively. The key is accepting ourselves — all of ourselves.
Our children cannot do this alone. With media images of size 2 models and photoshopped beauties and hunks with no blemishes coming at them 24/7, they are bombarded with unrealistic ideals.
Ask yourself: who educates and guides kids through the changes in their preteen and teen years? If you are not talking to your daughter about this, I can assure you she is being influenced by messages from Cosmo Girl, Hannah Montana, Google, and the classmate sitting next to her in school. Parents, it’s time to step up. Educate your child yourself. Talk directly to him or her about physical and emotional health. We need to listen to our children and teach them to appreciate their bodies and themselves.
To do this effectively, we parents also need to be aware of our own issues and beliefs about food. What are you saying about food and what are you showing through your food behavior? Children learn through hearing and seeing. If your child is hearing you say, “I need to diet” or “I hate my thighs,” she will often follow suit. Recognizing when our children are obsessed with their body image can also be a wake-up call to get parents back on track and teach us to improve our own eating habits and self-image.
Here are some guidelines to get you started. Teach your child that:
- No food is bad; everything can be enjoyed in moderation.
- Food is the energy of life.
- Our body takes care of us and allows us to run, think, grow and move. When we nurture our body, our body will nurture us.
- Through the meals you serve at home and when you eat out, teach your children to make healthy food choices. Talk with them about their likes and dislikes, and involve them in your food shopping and cooking.
- Your child is more than a look. Looks change, but who you are and what you do determine who you become. Be aware of the compliments you give your children on how they look, and be sure to compliment them on their positive attitudes and helpful behavior.
If you have concerns about your child or thoughts to share, please contact us. We are here to help!
By Debra K. Waranch, LCSW-C, Therapy Services, Jewish Community Services