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Children mimic your behaviors!

Contrary to popular belief, children hear what you say and see what you do.  Your behaviors and comments can leave a lasting impression.  Even your body image or weight concerns can be passed on to your kids.  Evidence shows that stressing thinness and weight control promotes eating disorders, low self-esteem, decreased body image, and weight bias in children.  Furthermore, eating behaviors linked to a higher risk for obesity are known to develop very early in life.  A 2001 study showed family food environments and attitudes around food and eating affect even preschool-aged kids’ eating behaviors.  You may think youngsters don’t pick up on your drastic dieting or negative comments you make about your body like older children, but they do!

Several studies show that restrictive feeding can impair a child’s ability to regulate their intake, resulting in overeating and weight gain.  Worrying about your own weight can influence your feeding style.  For example, forbidding high calorie foods or sweets in your home can result in your child sneaking food or feeling deprived and overeating when given the opportunity.  Overly controlling or eliminating fun foods simply doesn’t work with kids – balance is key.

Have you ever found yourself saying out loud:

“I have got to lose weight, I am getting so fat”

“I am going to be good and skip lunch today”

“No more desserts for me, I don’t deserve it”

If so, you may want to censor your comments and think before you speak.   Remember, your words could promote your child’s weight gain!

As a parent, you can model  “good for you” behaviors without fixating on weight.  There’s nothing wrong with guiding your child towards adopting healthy habits that will benefit him or her – that’s part of your role!

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to promote a healthy weight for yourself while empowering your child.

DO:

  • Be physically active and limit your own sedentary activities
  • Aim to eat when feeling physically hungry
  • Have a neutral view about all foods
  • Stock a range of nutritious foods in your home and choose these options more often
  • Offer balanced family meals as much as you can
  • Choose to talk about yourself and others with respect and appreciation

DON’T:

  • Get caught up in the latest fad diet or encourage your child to diet
  • Skip meals
  • Eliminate all sweets or high calorie foods from your home
  • Use food for rewards or punishments for yourself or for others
  • Eat while standing up or distracted (may lead to eating mindlessly)
  • Emphasize effects of unhealthy eating
  • Focus on anyone’s weight, especially yours or your child’s

Bottom line:  You are your child’s biggest role model – do you want your child viewing and treating their body the way you do?

Contributing Author:  Katherine Fowler, MS, RD, LDN

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In a culture plagued with weight problems and thin idealism, it’s no wonder kids are asking their parents, “Do you think I’m fat?” In fact, according to a 2008 Canadian survey, 37% of ninth grade girls and 40% of tenth grade girls believed they were, in fact, too fat.

Many parents are blind-sided with this question and are left stumped into silence or heading to Google, the doctor, or a friend for advice. According to Laura Newton, a psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist in Nashville, TN, the timing of this question is an important factor in deciding how to respond. “If this is the first time this question has come up, tell them they look fantastic, and make sure to stay away from using words like ‘big’ or ‘small’, ‘thin’ or ‘heavy’,” states Newton. If this is not the first time this question has been asked, then this is a real concern that needs your time and attention. “Sit down with your child and have a conversation, beginning with, “you have asked me this question a couple of times—what’s this about?” advises Newton.

Newton states that kids get these questions from a variety of influences, including their own parents, peers, and the media. Coming up with a thoughtful and meaningful response depends upon the influence your child is concerned about.

The Parent: Without even knowing it, parents pass on their own body image and weight concerns to their children. “If you find yourself asking, “Do I look good?” or “Do I look fat in these jeans?” to your hubby or other family members, you may want to temper those questions in front of the kids,” says Newton.  Rather, Newton suggests parents consider using this mantra for themselves and their family, “Enjoy your own body, as if your body is more than a clothes hanger. Revel in the beauty of a functioning body, which is the vehicle that will take you where you want to go in life.”

The Peers: Children surround themselves with their friends and find themselves in situations where body comparisons come naturally, such as the gym and the locker room. And particularly during pre-adolescence, the child has a developmental urge to find out if they are normal. “Answering the question, “Am I normal?” is developmentally on target and relies, in part, on looking at others and comparing oneself with others,” states Newton.

The Media: The ‘thin is in’ ideal makes its mark on children, too. And when you combine media power with a general desire to fit in, it’s easy to see how questions about self-worth and inadequacy can surface.

So what can parents do?

Most importantly, your child needs to hear that you accept and love them regardless of what they look like. No matter what. Period.

Here are some other things Newton encourages parents to keep in mind:

Respect and Honor your own body, no matter what the size or shape it is—it is your body after all…and the body that produced your child, and takes you where you want to go.

Tolerate normal child growth.  Pre-pubescent girls and boys gain weight in preparation for the rapid growth of the teen years—this is a normal process.

Focus on your child’s inner qualities. Begin pointing out inner qualities as early as possible, to help build self-esteem and worthiness.

Limit media influences. Think twice about buying that fashion magazine for your 11 year old and be sure to scrutinize the TV shows your child is watching.

Attitude is everything! Everybody has value, no matter what it looks like.

When your child asks “Do you think I’m fat?”, she is asking you to discuss your values and ideals about body weight, shape and size. He is also giving you the option to debunk media messages, thin idealism, show your acceptance and assure love. Seems like a golden opportunity to me.

Have you had this question? If so, how did you respond?

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We are all role models to children.  Parents, especially, are under the watchful eye of their child.  How you behave, what you choose, your habits—both good and bad, influence a child each day.  And how you manage your body—what you eat, when and how much you eat, your activity level or lack thereof, all register with children and can set the foundation for a future of healthy eating and an active lifestyle, or not.

Parents have the unique responsibility of being the primary role model for their child when it comes to food and eating behaviors.  By the time a child is twelve years old, they will model many parental behaviors in this area.  So, if you are a meal skipper, chances are your child may be too.  If you diet off and on, so may your child grow up and do the same.  If you refuse certain foods or eliminate them from your diet, your child may adopt these practices also.  If you spend a lot of time watching television, don’t be surprised if your child comes home and plops in front of the TV, Nintendo DS, or laptop. 

It can be overwhelming to realize your child is looking at your behavior every day!  Here are some concepts to keep in mind as you consider your model behavior:

Trust your child to honor their hunger and fullness and eat the right amounts for their body.  Trust your child’s inner intuition about eating.  Trust that you can learn from your child’s natural self-regulation.  This foundation of trust will serve you and your child through the ups and downs of growth, body development, and eating in the future.

Predictability is the key to a happy child.  Set up a framework for meals and snacks—time them at regular intervals to avoid over-hunger.  Structure your meals to have most of the food groups represented, most of the time.  Offering fruit at every meal is a great way to ensure healthy eating and build predictability in mealtimes.  Predictability builds security—food security.  A child who is secure with food and eating tends to have fewer problems with weight and eating later in life.

Choose food for health.  Focus on foods that are rich in nutrients, fiber, and taste.  Choose more whole, natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains.  Consider processed foods, food colorings and dyes, caffeine, and sugar substitutes as the “occasional food”, rather than a staple in your family’s diet.  If the drive through is a common stop on your way home, envision another way to bring convenience and efficiency to your eating—try a crock-pot,  a pressure cooker, or homemade frozen entrees instead.

Expose your child to a variety of foods.  Ensure that new foods accompany familiar foods.  Try ethnic varieties, exotic fruits, seasonal vegetables, and flavorful condiments.  Try different forms of familiar foods—instead of French fries, try roasted potatoes.  Instead of applesauce, try baked apples.  Don’t rule out a food because you think your child won’t like it—and don’t paint a grim face if you do offer it—stay neutral and trust your child to let you know their impression.

Adventure in eating is fun for kids. Show your sense of eating adventure by having a “new menu item” night during the week.  An openness to “try anything” also shows adventure in eating—let your child see the adventurous eater in you!

Move your body—daily.  If you want your child to be active, you need to be active too.  Show your enjoyment and enthusiasm for exercise!

Share your food.  This is a safe way for your young child to try new food items and a way to build trust and security with food and eating.  Sharing food sends the very basic and important message of generosity.

Communicate early and often with your child about food, eating, nutrients, health, and physical activity.  Promoting open and honest communication about nutrition will set a foundation of trust, health education, and realism in the world of food and eating.  Remember, children are curious and will ask the questions—let them know early on that you are their resource for reliable information.

Manners are important and beginning early with the basic “please and thank you” is a great place to start.  Make sure you “please” and “thank” your child early on—and you will be pleasantly surprised when you hear it stated, unsolicited from their mouths.  Practice common table manners—it pays off before you know it.

Role Modeling is not a choice for a parent—it comes with the territory.  Choosing to be a great role model with food and eating will reap lifetime rewards in your child’s food choices, eating behaviors, exercise patterns, and overall health.  Remember, your child is watching your every move.  Your moves don’t have to be perfect—just thoughtful and intended toward a healthful and active child.

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When my daughter decided she wanted to try out for her school cheerleading squad, I was…ummm…ambiguous, concerned, worried, reserved.  I guess my long days of seeing young teen girls with low self-esteem and body image distortion were clouding my vision–or were they?  Maybe I was just a worried mother who was afraid of neck injury, back injury, and a wheelchair?  Or was I concerned that my daughter would get the message that perky prettiness was more important than brains and brawn?  Certainly, I knew the physical demands of cheering were equal to a vigorous workout and I had heard from other coaches that cheerleaders take on more bumps and bruises than perhaps, football players.  But, I was nervous…about all of it.

When my daughter came home and told me that she was to be one of the flyers (you know, the ones that get tossed up in the air and hurtled through space?!), I put on my brave and neutral face, and said, “Well honey, that’s great!”.  As time marched on, and twice weekly practices were the norm, I noticed that I tended to wait in the car for my daughter, rather than go in and watch the tail end of practice, like so many of the other mothers.   I told myself that I would wait to watch her …until when?  Until she told me she was perfectly perfect at all the stunts?  Safe?  Still grounded in her self, her spirit and self-confidence?  Still naturally beautiful?  I asked her questions targeted at her self-esteem and the dynamics of the group.  She always said, ” Practice was great!”.  I was searching for a drawback, a down-side to the experience, but was coming up empty-handed.

Despite my ambiguity, as the weeks turned into months, I couldn’t help but notice the little split jumps my daughter would do as she walked behind the couch, or the abrupt moments of getting up from the dinner table to bang out a move or two from her dance repertoire.  Our family enjoyed these moments.  We could actually see her improve and develop her skills throughout these months of dedicated practice.

Last night was the end-all, be-all cheer competition, the final finale of teams against teams, loud re-mixed versions of “Boom Boom Pow” and other songs I couldn’t begin to define.  As my daughter and her cheer team approached the stage, I sat amazed at the talent in front of me.  Their crisp movements. Their confidence and poise.   The wonderful show of sportsmanship to the fellow teams.  And the sweet and sincere support the team had for each other. 

I rest now, of clear mind and contented fears, assured that my daughter has benefited from cheerleading– in self-confidence, poise, and the knowledge that hard work REALLY does pay off.  The dividends of a positive team experience are numerous.  Yes, a trophy is always a nice reminder of the event, but the lasting pride, self-esteem, and inner satisfaction a girl, like my 7th grade daughter, can muster in the days to come  have exponential rewards.

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Parenting is no easy feat, especially when it comes to feeding your child.  Encouraging a positive attitude about food and eating, consuming nutritious foods, and cultivating a good body image are fundamental to your child’s health and well-being.  The attention you give to food selection and the process of feeding your child will lay the foundation for a future of health and body confidence.  Here are five key concepts to consider as you raise your healthy eater:

Enrich the Plate and the Palate

Children require over 40 nutrients each day.  Offering a wide variety of whole, natural foods that include low-fat dairy products, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains will help assure these nutrient needs are met.  Reduce consumption of processed foods and foods with artificial colorings, as these may be nutrient-poor and crowd out the necessary nutrients required by your growing child.

Focus on Family Meals

Sit down and eat together as often as you can.   Research indicates that five family meals per week may improve grades, reduce risk-taking behaviors, and prevent obesity and eating disorders.

Try family-style feeding—put  a variety of prepared food into serving dishes, pass them around the table and let everyone choose which foods they will eat and how much.  Be sure to include one or two food items that you know your child likes and is comfortable eating.  Family-style meals encourage your child to eat amounts that are right for him.

Provide, Don’t Deprive

Be a great provider!  Take care to keep your kitchen well-stocked with nutrient-rich foods.  Prepare good-tasting, healthy meals that appeal to your child.  Anticipate hunger between meals and serve healthy snacks that satisfy your child. 

Avoid being a depriver.  When it comes to your child’s appetite, be sure to respect his hunger.  Restricting or controlling how much your child eats may leave him hungry and promote overeating at other occasions.

Be Predictable and Consistent

Develop a rhythmic and timely pattern to meals and snacks, and be consistent.  Predictability and consistency helps your child keep hunger in check, be more relaxed about eating, and less fixated on food.

Watch what you say, heed what you do

Parents are the greatest influence, particularly in the first decade of life, on their child’s eating behaviors, food selections, and body image.  To raise healthy eaters, you have to be a healthy eater too!  Be a terrific role model for your child by enjoying nutritious, wholesome foods every day.  For more on role modeling, check out my expert blog post on http://www.littlestomaks.com.

Negative comments about your child’s food selections, how much or how little they eat, and how they look may hurt your child’s self esteem and body image.  At meal time, take the focus off of food and body size and enjoy a conversation about their school day or future activities on the family schedule.

Following these strategies will help you be a great feeder and raise a child who is a confident, healthy eater.

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