5 Signs You're Transferring Anxiety About Your Own Body To Your Kid, & What To Do About It
As much as we want to have perfectly healthy relationships with our bodies, damaging social messages can find their way into our psyche and make us feel anxious or negative about ourselves. Our kids are not immune, either. No matter how much we may want to shield them from it, they can pick up harmful messages that contribute to a negative body image from peers, from media, and... from us. Thankfully, there are signs your anxiety about your own body is being transferred to your child; signs that can let you know it's time to make some changes, so your child doesn't end up feeling the same way about their own body.
Romper spoke with Dr. Rebecca Berry, Ph.D., a psychologist at NYU specializing in adolescent eating disorders, to find out how to tell if you're transferring body shame and anxiety to your kid and what to do about it.
First of all, I wanted to know if there was any actual evidence that suggests that parental body shame is "contagious" to kids. Just because it seems to be a common sense connection doesn't always mean it's real, and as parents we're already subjected to an awful lot of guilt and pressure around our feelings and how they affect our kids.
But Dr. Berry says there is evidence that suggests that parents' anxieties about their bodies affect their kids. "One study by Field and colleagues from Harvard Medical School found that a mother’s concerns about her own body weight are a leading cause of body image problems in adolescents. Furthermore, the same study found that the more mothers were worried about their own weight, the more likely they were to pass on these attitudes to their children," Dr. Berry tells me.
So. what are the signs to watch out for?
Dr. Berry says, "I tell parents to watch for changes in their child’s eating behaviors, negative comments about their own weight or shape, as well as the shape of others." And while anyone can have a moment or two of feeling bad about their own body, Dr. Berry tells me that "frequent expressions of sadness or hopelessness about their own weight and shape and attempts to diet excessively for the purpose of losing weight are immediate concerns and may require consultation with an outside professional."
Changes in Your Child's Eating Behaviors
Sudden changes in your child's eating habits could be cause for alarm. If your child seems to be eating less than usual or declaring themselves "not hungry" too often, it is worth checking in with them to find out about the cause of their lack of appetite. Bear in mind the recommended daily calorie intake for your child when you have this conversation, and recognize that appetite will vary with activity level.
Negative Comments About Their Own Weight or Shape
If your child frequently expresses negative feelings about their own weight or shape, don't dismiss these comments as normal. Anyone can have a moment or two of feeling down about their appearance from one day to the next, but regularly making comments like, "Oh, I'm so fat" or, "I could never wear that" is a sign of negative body image, as explained by Five Disorder Hope. While this kind of talk is widespread in our society, especially in teen girl culture, being common doesn't make it harmless.
Negatively Commenting On Other People's Bodies
Making negative comments about others' bodies is also a warning sign. How we talk about other people is filtered through the lens of what we think is typical or widely accepted. So, a child who criticizes others for being "too fat" likely thinks people in general should be thinner, and will apply this dangerous lens to their own body as well.
Again, while this kind of negative talk is widespread in our culture, it is not normal or healthy.
Feeling Sad Or Hopeless About Their Own Weight Or Shape
If your child is feeling sad or hopeless about their appearance, weight, or shape, it's an important sign that your child may need help from a professional trained in identifying and treating eating disorders and negative body image.
Dieting To Lose Weight
Dieting to lose weight is such a common feature of our culture that it can seem impossible to avoid diet talk and the pressure associated with it. But children and adolescents should not be on restrictive diets for the sake of appearance, no matter how well intentioned that diet may be. If your child is dieting without the supervision of a medical professional, they are especially at risk and may need professional intervention.
How to Help
So what do we do? We need to make sure we deal with negative body image issues in ourselves. At the same time, we can work towards helping limit the impact of our own anxieties on our kids by being mindful of what we display.
"Teach youth that every body is a good body," Dr. Berry tells Romper. "As with most things involving youth, leading by example is almost always more powerful than telling them what to do. It is important to model acceptance of one’s own shape and weight, and to pass down family values around appropriate amounts of exercise or physical activity, as well as eating a variety of healthy and nutritious foods."
In the current health-obsessed climate, it is possible to be too fixated on "healthy" eating, too; treating sugary or fatty foods as a problem in themselves. Dr. Berry suggests that in order to model a healthy relationship with food, we should teach our children that "most things, including sugar, can be part of a balanced regimen, in moderation... avoid self-shaming or regret if you eat a sweet treat or savory delight."
We can do all the healthy modeling we want, but by the time our kids are teens, they're getting conflicting body messages from society. Dr. Berry recommends discussing the sexualized images of female celebrities and how their bodies are talked about in the media, instead of ignoring it. She says teens need to understand that "many of the sexualized behaviors of media characters are not sustainable or realistic, for that matter."
Show Them You Love Them & Yourself
Body image anxiety can seem daunting, and it takes daily work to come to feel better about ourselves. It won't turn around overnight for our kids, either. With time and sustained attention, we can shift how we think about our bodies. Showing your children that you are doing that work will help make them healthier and happier in the long run, too.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.