You may have seen recent newspaper headlines about your children’s attitudes towards their bodies. “Body image worries plaguing young kids,” screamed one. “Children aged five being treated for anorexia, shouted another. And according to a recent government report, these stories aren’t just scaremongering. Research shows that nearly half of 3- to 6-year-olds worry about being fat, and one third want to change something about their appearance.
In fact, the government is so concerned that it plans to introduce body image lessons in primary schools. So how can you help your child to love the skin she’s in? Find out here…
Pressure to be perfect
Whether she’s playing with her Barbie doll or watching The X Factor with the family, your tot is constantly bombarded with messages about body image. “Everywhere we turn, we’re subliminally told we have to be slim, blonde and long-legged to be successful, and even young children compare their bodies to other people’s,” says Leanne Thorndyke, of eating disorders charity Beat.
Overheard conversations can also shape your child’s attitudes, with a girly gossip about your dieting success or a soap star’s weight gain teaching your tot subconsciously that thin is best. “It was only when my daughter asked what a diet was that I realised she’d been listening when I was talking to friends about losing weight,” says Jenny Rowan, 34, from Staines, mum to Elizabeth, 5, and Joel, 3.
Studies show the biggest influence on your child’s body image is you, and this is especially true with girls. “Children love pretending to be grown-ups, so if she hears you talking about being fat or needing to diet, it’s only natural she may copy you,” says Anastasia de Waal, of the charity Family Lives.
Be a role model
Whatever your child’s gender, you’re uniquely placed to help them develop a positive body image. “It’s important to demonstrate a relaxed attitude to food and eat as a family whenever you can,” says Sue Atkins, author of Parenting Made Easy: How to Raise Happy Children (Vermilion, £12.99). “If your child sees you enjoying a healthy diet and not worrying about food, she’ll be relaxed about what she eats, too.”
Avoid describing certain foods as “bad” or banning them. Instead of telling your little one not to eat too many sweets because they make you fat, point out the effects they could have on her teeth. The same applies to exercise. Make it a part of everyday family life, for example riding bikes in the park or walking to playgroup, rather than something you do to stay slim.
Give positive praise
The way you praise your child can affect her self-image and, again, this particularly applies to girls. “It’s important to applaud a whole range of attributes, not just her looks,” advises Leanne. By all means compliment her on her pretty hair, but make sure you also commend her for being clever or kind. Try also to find positive body image role models for your child. “My son was upset when he found out that he needed glasses,” says Paula Fox, mum to Seth, 4. “But when I pointed out his favourite storybook character wore specs too, he was quite excited about it.”
Talk it over
If your child does express body worries, don’t panic. “It’s highly likely that she’s just mimicking things she’s heard grown-ups saying,” says Anastasia de Waal. Be prepared to talk about her feelings and find out if something has shaken her confidence – whether it’s an overheard chat about the latest celeb diet, or a playground taunt. Once you’ve established what’s worrying your child, you can try to address it.
“A good exercise is to write ‘I am special’ on a big piece of paper, and ask family members to write or draw pictures of all the wonderful things there are about your child, above and beyond what she looks like,” says Sue. “If someone at school or nursery is being unkind, you can also encourage her to visualise stepping into a big coloured bubble each morning, so any cruel words just bounce off.”
Above all, be confident about your own body. Getting dressed in front of your tot and having the occasional make-up free day will show her that there’s more to life than looks. “If you’re relaxed about your lumps and bumps, your attitude will rub off onto your child,” says Sue.
A mum’s story
“We let our kids go naked round the house if they want, and they both enjoy having a bath with me. I firmly believe that not covering ourselves up or feeling ashamed helps us to love our bodies,” Joanna Foster, 27, from Liverpool, mum to Yelina, 5, and Blake, 2.