Worried Your Child is Developing a Poor Body Image? Here’s What to Say (And Not Say)

This is a guest post by Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD. Maryann is a registered dietitian and author of several books including How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food. She’s currently working on her next book aimed at helping tween girls get through puberty with a positive body image. To be alerted to Maryann’s book releases, sign up for her newsletter.

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No matter how much you fill your home with nutritious food and how little you mention ideal body types, there’ll likely be a time when your child points out how their body is all wrong. And this is not just girls, but boys too. By the time they reach the teen years, half of girls and a quarter of boys are dissatisfied with their body.

This happens for a variety of reasons. First, the unrealistic media images come at lightning speed and once kids reach puberty, they naturally compare their bodies to their peers and want to look attractive. And the belief that thinner is better can start as early as the age of 3!

So let’s start off by detailing what you want to avoid saying when your child doesn’t like what they see in the mirror.

What Not to Say

Most parents panic when their child says something negative about their body, especially when the word “fat” is involved. I’ve seen two reactions from parents that we’ll want to explore.

First, is to jump in with “your body is perfect the way it is.” This makes the child feel better in the moment, but it doesn’t address or validate the feelings of inferiority that lie beneath the surface. So instead of helping them sort out their feelings, they stay confused and unsure.

The second reaction is to take this time to share your worries about the child’s size (if you have worries). So maybe it’s, “I’ve been meaning to talk about your weight because I’m worried about your health.” In the child’s mind, this confirms that indeed her body is all wrong. This only makes her feel worse and more likely to try and change her body through unhealthy means (aka dieting). Research shows that a focus on weight increases the risk of disordered eating and future weight gain in children.

What to Say

Instead of rushing to solve the problem, get more information by responding with, “Why do you say that?” Answers may not come easily at first, but keep digging.

Maybe a girl heard her friend say she was fat, and this friend is thinner than her. Or in gym class a boy discovers he weighs the least among his friends, and they called him scrawny.

Once you understand the why, you can start challenging these emerging beliefs. Questions are a good place to start. Ask him/her: “Is everyone supposed to be the same shape and size? Does our size and shape make us healthy, or is it what we do?”

The key message to get across is that everyone has a genetic blueprint for their body frame and shape (i.e., pear vs. apple). This is determined by genes handed down to us by our parents, like the color of our eyes and hair. Development also plays a role, especially during puberty, and you will not know how your body will turn out until your done growing (18-19 for boys and 14-16 for girls). You may not be able to control your body’s frame or when you’ll start or finish puberty, but you can control how you feed it, move it, and take care of it. 

Table of Common Body Image Triggers and Key Messages to Relay

What if You are Concerned About Your Child’s Weight?

If you are concerned about weight that is too high or low, start with your child’s growth chart and confer with their pediatrician privately. Growth becomes an issue when kids grow off their curve. So even if your child is at a higher or lower percentile, if that’s where they’ve always been, it’s likely their body’s preferred size. If they jump up or down one year that’s not always a problem. It’s when they trail up or down a few years in a row that you want to take notice.

If they have trailed up and you are concerned, still do not put the focus on weight. This is like making grades the main focus of a child struggling in school. Weight, like grades, is an outcome, not a behavior.

Most often kids who grow too fast have gotten in the habit of eating past fullness or in the absence of hunger. Kids growing too slow may graze on food or lose their appetite due to pressure to eat.

The first place to focus on is how they eat. Have them eat balanced meals and snacks at the table, instead of while doing other activities or grazing. Encourage them to let hunger and fullness guide eating, instead of pressuring or restricting them. And review how stress, sleep, and activity may be affecting the foods they crave and how much they eat.

The key is to help children get to a place where they are back to regulating their food intake by dealing with root causes.

Body Image is a Health Issue

Although rarely talked about, body image is a major health issue for growing kids. Kids with a poor body image are at increased risk of dysregulated eating, dieting, unnecessary weight gain, and eating disorders. Children who feel good about their bodies are less likely to diet and gain unnecessary weight, and are more likely to be emotionally healthy and engage in healthy habits.

It takes honest, open, and repeated conversations to help your child embrace—and take care of—the skin that they’re in.

Have you had any of these issues with your children? How did you handle it? Please share in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Worried Your Child is Developing a Poor Body Image? Here’s What to Say (And Not Say)”

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  1. Thank you for this. I have a 4yo and she’s starting to observe things about everyone’s bodies, including mine (and I’m currently on a health journey so she sees me exercising and such). These are great things to keep in mind as we have these conversations!

  2. Don’t talk about people’s appearance and their bodies and focus on more important things about a person, such as how kind or charitable they are or whether they have good manners or work hard.

  3. Thank you for this blog post. I have 4 girls (10, 8, 5, 2), so this is definitely a concern of mine. My 10 year old eats pretty healthy (likes protein, veggies, fruit) but loves sweets and she has grown a ton this past year jumping from size 10-14. My 8 year old we have the opposite problem. She will hardly eat anything (mostly noodles, bread, cheese, fruit). She is very active in swim and soccer and is still wearing size 6. I struggle with begging the 8 year old to eat something and trying to get the 10 year old to be mindful of what she is eating. Any other advice you have is welcome.

    1. Thanks for your question, Krista. It’s a common one I get. Actually, all types of eaters benefit from what research calls an authorative feeding style. This is planning and serving regular meals and snacks at the table and having kids eat until they are full without interference/control from parents. Research shows that when you pressure a thin/picky child to eat, they end up eating less, And trying to get a bigger eater to eat less by restricting them, means they end up more fixated on food. So having both kids tune into hunger and fullness at meals is key. I discuss in detail all of this in my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater. I also coach parents on how to provide sweets without them getting out of hand. It sounds like your older one has hit puberty and that is why she’s gained weight.

    2. Krista, I too have 4 daughters (8,6,2, 2 months) and My oldest 2 are similar to yours where one eats a lot and the other is more of a picky eater. My concern is that my oldest is too concerned with being an “unhealthy weight” as she puts it. I don’t ever remember talking to her about weight so I am already concerned because she is my picky eater. With daughters especially, I feel the pressure to make sure I’m setting her up with a good body image from the start. Thanks so much for this blog post Maryann. I will definitely be checking out your book!