I’m sure many of you could tell me at least one story about your mother, father or siblings doing or saying something that contributed to your poor relationship with food and your body. My mother used to buy food that only she could eat. For example, she bought green, seedless grapes for herself only. My siblings and I could only eat the red, seed filled grapes from the backyard. My brother used to tell me I was fat and “why don’t you exercise” (he was not asking a question). Although I don’t blame my mother or my brother for my issues with food, their behaviors did contribute.

The truth is, our parents have a huge impact on how we see ourselves today: good or bad, fat or thin, pretty or ugly, etc. They certainly don’t intend to hurt us but sometimes they do.

If you are a parent, I’m sure you try hard not to make the same mistakes as your parents and try to be aware of what you say and do. Below are some suggestions on how you can help your child have a healthy relationship with food and his/her body. You can also apply this to your own “inner child” (see June’s Newsletter).

Teach your children to eat when they are hungry
Create a structure around food. Feed your children three meals a day with a couple of snacks. Try to keep meals at about the same time everyday and don’t fight about how much your child has had to eat. Allow your child to have snacks in between well-balanced meals, but not so much that they aren’t hungry at meal time. In addition, let them have desserts and other things they love. Children are much more in touch with their body’s signals than many adults. Trust them to know what they need, to balance it with what they want, and to stop eating when they are full.

Avoid using food as reward, punishment, or to cover up feelings
Teach children that food is about fueling the body, rather than a way to feed emotions or as a reward for “being good.” Most of clients have these beliefs. When I talk to groups about food issues, I often playfully mimic a mother saying, “here, have a cookie, you’ll feel better” to demonstrate this.

Don’t Diet
One of the leading causes of eating disorders is dieting. The ANAD (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders) Newsletter, Summer 2001pointed out that “three of the most powerful risk factors for the development of an eating disorder are (1) a mother who diets, (2) a sister who diets, and (3) friends who diet. In addition, girls and women who diet severely [restricting food to excess] are eighteen times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dieters.”

Discourage children from talking about other people’s weight
Teach your children to see beyond how a person looks. Teach them to focus on a person’s talents, abilities, hopes, values and goals. The days of judging someone based on the color of their skin or by their religion is over (or, at least we think it is). Yet, fat discrimination persists.

Don’t comment on your own weight in a negative way
Nothing teaches “hate your body” more than hearing your mother or father do it. Your children’s image of themselves is greatly influenced by you, the parent.. If you think you are fat (even if you are not), and see it as a bad thing, your child may eventually see themselves this way too.

Never comment negatively about your child’s (or anyone else’s) weight
Some parents think they are being helpful by telling their child to lose weight or no one will like them. I understand the desire to do this… after all, in our society this seems to be true. However, doing so can not only lead your child to feel deep shame about themselves but can continue to send the message that there is something wrong with fat people.