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Body Image: Parental Guidance is Advised

Sep 25, 2012 12:00PM ● By Anonymous

"Studies have clearly linked the fact that the kids of disordered parents are much more likely to engage in dieting behaviors or disordered eating," says dr. Steven crawford, associate director of the center for eating disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Towson. "There is a clear link between the parents' dieting and the children's future eating patterns."

That's not to say that parents cause eating disorders. There are a number of social, psychological, and biological factors that can contribute to a child's negative body image. But parents do impact how their children feel about themselves. And, most of the time, they do so unintentionally.

"If a parent is constantly looking in the mirror, and is focused on what they don't like, the child learns to take a critical eye toward their own body," says
Dr. Crawford.

"What kids grow up with is going to affect, on an unconscious level, what they're interested in," says licensed clinical social worker Loren Buckner, author of ParentWise: The Emotional Challenges of Family Life And How to Deal With Them. "If parents are just pretending and saying the right thing, the child will pick up on that. If it's forced, the child will pick up on that, too, and then there will be ambivalence. Children realize the unspoken."

But this kind of absorption can be used for good. Taking a proactive approach allows parents to shape their kids' definition of beauty. They can help appreciate the functionality of the body, as opposed to just its external appearance.

"Get your kids involved as much as you can," says registered dietician Diana Sugiuchi, owner of Nourish Family Nutrition in Baltimore. "Do things together as a family that are active— go out for a family hike or a bike ride. The more kids are involved, the more they're going to have an investment."

That parent-child relationship has a significant effect on confidence. The more secure children feel about their parents' love, the more confident they're going to be as adults. "Unconditional love doesn't mean approving of everything children do," says Buckner. "It just means that whatever they do, they know that they are loved, that problems can be worked through, and that there isn't anything inside of them that needs to be approved of."

Sometimes, though, in order to take such a proactive approach toward their kids' self-esteem, parents need to change their own habits. Redefine a weight-loss goal as one of having "a healthy lifestyle." Instead of going to the gym simply to burn calories and lose weight, find activities and classes that you enjoy. And acknowledge when your body is full and when it's hungry. "Let the body find its natural set point, and then be accepting of genetic predeterminations," says Crawford. "It's not about changing or controlling, it's about being healthy, and celebrating what your body is."

Once parents feel more comfortable in their own skin, they can bring those actions to their family.

Parents, though, are not the only ones who shape their child's self-esteem. Social media and general media have a big impact, too. Because adults and children alike are constantly hit with what's wrong with their bodies, it's important to have some sort of moderation in the home.

"There needs to be a break from that exposure, as well as some education about the media ideas that aren't realistic," says Dr. Crawford. "Parents need to teach that those are created to sell products and that they're not real." And it's never too early to start sending positive messages to your child. Even parents of babies and toddlers can promote appreciation of the body for its value.

"We all wish that there could be simple solutions to complicated problems. The thing is there isn't anything simple about raising children," says Buckner. "I believe that deepening our understanding of what parenting really involves, rather than trying to simplify it, is what leads to better parenting and healthier families."