Children as young as five years old report being dissatisfied with their body. While parents will not be able to entirely shelter their children from the bombardment of outside views (e.g. social and print media, TV and movies, comments from other children and adults), parents can certainly act as role models to these young, impressionable minds.
Young children are often the recipients of such comments as “you are so pretty, you are going to make your future husband very happy” or “you are so handsome, you are going to break the hearts of many girls!” While this type of language is commonplace, it sets the standard that a child is not much more than their looks and it showcases what their looks can do for them. Parents can balance “cute/beautiful/handsome” remarks with commenting on ability and personality. Examples are pointing out how the child is great at sharing, how they cared for a sibling or another child, how they did a great job on their book report, how their legs carry them to play soccer or their arms can push their wheelchair, etc.
Parents should also refrain from commenting on the bodies of others. Examples include “that woman is too fat/too skinny” or “that man needs to build muscle, he looks weak, he doesn’t look like a man.” Children internalize these comments even when the comment is not directed at them.
When children are entering puberty, parents should not make derogatory or “joking” comments on what is perceived as an “awkward” stage or if the child is an early or late bloomer. I have had 30-year-olds patients who report that these childhood comments by adults deeply impacted their confidence and contributed to their eating disorder.
One of the most important ways parents can promote body acceptance is to not make any negative comments about their own body in front of their children. Do not say things like, “do I look fat in this?” or “my nose is too big.” It is also crucial not to add qualifiers when it comes to eating and body image such as, “I can eat this piece of cake because I worked out earlier.” A child’s mind is malleable and it is up to adults to be mindful of this.
If you would like further guidance, visit https://www.anad.org/get-help/find-support-groups-treatment/ to make an appointment with an eating disorder therapist in your area.