They say children are like sponges and imitate what their parents do and say. This can be cute but it can also become a problem, especially if what they are imitating is body-shaming and negative self-talk about food. This is not effective and can often cause negative side-effects for your children and family. But it doesn't have to be that way. Read on to learn how you can talk about food and bodies without planting the seed of shame.
Teach attention to and identification of body sensations, such as tired, hungry, etc.
Help your children to identify what they are experiencing in their bodies. It is so easy for us to just think, "Man, you are cranky today" or "He is whiny because he is tired". It can be really helpful for kids to focus on what their body is telling them. Have a conversation with your child — How do you feel when you are getting sleepy? Maybe give them some ideas. For example, "When I get sleepy, things that are normally easy for me can start to seem hard and sometimes my body feels really slow and heavy". Once your child learns that their body gives them important information, they can also learn that they can take action to take care of it. What helps you when you are feeling sleepy? Have these kinds of little conversations about feeling hungry, needing attention or love, being scared, all kinds of experiences that we can feel in our bodies. Here's the tough part, parents — In teaching your children to take care of their own bodies sensations and needs, you need to model taking care of your own. So, are you feeling tired? What could you do to help you to recover a little bit?
Encourage exploration of individual strengths, rather than pushing a mold
The family sport may be baseball, but if your child's hand eye coordination isn't where it may need to be for them to enjoy and feel successful at baseball, allow them to explore other sports or activities that might help them find a sense of accomplishment. Encourage all your children, but especially those under 10 years old, to experiment with different activities and have fun discovering all the varied ways to be active. Invite family play that includes touch, stretching, silly non-choreographed movement or dancing, or exploration of their senses, all ways for your children to discover their own bodies and what it can do and feel.
Focus on eating for energy and pleasure
Food tastes good and food fuels us to live our lives, but so often we talk about food and the way we eat it as though it says something about our value or ethics as a person. How often have you said, in front of your kids, "Oh I shouldn't eat that" or "I was so bad for eating that ice cream". Help your children focus on food choices with as little shaming as possible. And the best way to do this is to model that attitude with yourself and your choices. For example, saying "Cookies sound good, but I know I have a busy afternoon ahead of me so I am going to have something that will give me more energy" or "I would love one of your brownies and I am going to sit here and really enjoy it". These responses are not shame-based and they show food as an ally to support you in feeling good and functioning the way you want to.
Do not allow teasing about bodies in your house
Very often I hear dads say that they used to bond with their kids through playful teasing and then when puberty hit their kids suddenly starting taking it so seriously. Yes, part of teen development is to be very worried about being "normal" and living up to external standards. For several years it becomes very hard for teens to joke about themselves. This does not mean that they have permanently lost their sense of humor, although it may feel like that. However, teasing through this time in their lives or any other can be very painful and can shut down lines of communication between you. I also hear teens, and adults, say that teasing from siblings was an incredibly painful part of growing up and often still stings. Have family ground rules set in place that no one (including parents) gets teased about how their body looks or works. Find other ways to joke and be playful that are non-critical.
Teach children to look at media and fads with a critical eye
Here's the thing about this one — I say with a critical eye, not with your critical eye. You cannot force your children to see things your way, although many have tried. What you can teach them is to ask questions about what they see, to think about unseen consequences or motivations, to know that they have the right to disagree even with things that are hugely popular. Watch TV or listen to the radio with your children, and invite conversation about what is happening. Ask your children what they think about something at least as often as you share what you think. Have a night when TV watching is a game and you have to yell out every time someone talks about being on a diet or every time you see a woman in underwear (this happens often even during children’s’ programming hours). Have fun, be loud, and then talk about what they think about seeing those things on TV so often. Nominate other things to look for in TV that you want to start a conversation about.
Melissa Fritchle is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist & Sex Therapist with a holistic private practice in Capitola, California. She is also an award-winning international sex educator offering workshops and trainings around the world. Follow her blog, Conscious Sexual Self.
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