Growing up, lots of kids internalize messages about food, health and their bodies — from parents, friends and society.
Turns out, those messages can impact us for longer than we think, and parents can even pass those down to their kids today.
“If [our upbringing] is leading us to be kind of all-or-nothing or overly rigid about food or scared of certain foods or certain food groups, we probably want to examine that,” said Jennifer White, a social worker specializing in eating disorders.
Windsor Morning9:48Nurturing a child’s relationship with food
As Eating Disorder Awareness Week wraps up on Wednesday, White joined CBC Windsor Morning host Amy Dodge to talk about what you can do — both for yourself and your kids — to break the cycle of unhealthy food thoughts and encourage kids.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
I want you to sort of establish for us what is something we can ask ourselves that would quickly identify if we have a healthy relationship with food or not?
Absolutely. That’s a really good question because I think it’s something where we’ve all inherited ideas and values and we pick things up from our friends and our society, and we don’t always realize how our internal dialogue around it or our relationship around it lands with us.
Overall, what I see people really struggle with is rigidity around food and food rules, moralizing different foods. I get it, there are a lot of choices to be made with food out there. But the more we tell ourselves that we can’t have something, the more we tell ourselves something is bad, the more we’re probably going to want it.
That leads us to either overeat that food or to eat that food and then feel bad or guilty about it afterwards, which then lowers our mood and lowers our self esteem.
How much of how we view food now is tied to our upbringing?
I think that varies from person to person, but overall probably more than we realize. I think a lot of us can really, especially in middle age, relate to growing up in the Weight Watchers days and Oprah and all the different diets.
The diet industry is a multi-billion dollar powerful machine. But a lot of diets preach things that aren’t really effective or haven’t been effectively researched. And now ‘dieting’ gets cloaked in what we call clean eating.
A lot of us also received messages growing up about the way, you know, girls and women should look. That is becoming increasingly common now for boys and men as well.
If that is something that we grew up with, how do we change that for the next generation?
That’s a really good question. I get that a lot. Basically, we want to role model the behaviour that we want to see in our kids, and we want to role model that relationship with our body that we want our children to have.
What we want to do is come to a place of body acceptance and body freedom and role model a healthy relationship with food in your body to your children.
What’s something tangible that I can change as a parent to make that difference in my kids’ life?
First of all, I’m going to tell you things not to do and then we can talk about what to do.
My pen is ready.
We don’t want to engage in body talk at all. No body shaming, no commentary about anybody else’s body. If you’re having family or friends over, you don’t want your children overhearing ‘I’ve gained weight’ or that ‘I’ve lost weight’ or ‘this is too big’ or ‘that’s not big enough.’
We don’t want to put ourselves down in front of our children. If we are doing that, they are going to learn to also do that. We want to have a culture of body acceptance where we accept that bodies change, bodies are dynamic, bodies grow, bodies get stronger, and that is all OK.
As human beings, change is hard and it can be scary unless we’re teaching children to expect this, and that is part of being normal and healthy.
What about saying ‘you look great in that,’ or ‘I love that you chose to wear that?’ Are we still giving a negative message on the other side of that of?
This is really interesting, actually.
There is now more data coming out about social media and its impact on young people and there was a study done where highschoolers had their Instagram usage tracked and basically the outcome was this: For young women who were posting body-based pictures, selfies and mirror shots and that kind of thing, the more likes they got and the more positive comments on their body, the worse their self-esteem was.
I think it’s because it drives home this idea that you need to look a certain way in order to be acceptable, or that it’s your appearance that is valuable.
So as a parent, how do you do differently? If you really just want to encourage your kid that they know how much you love them and that they look great. But if I can’t use that language, what do I do?
You want to direct it back to them. Your child got a new outfit for back to school, they are proud as a peacock and you want to say ‘how do you feel in that?’ Or ‘you look really confident, you look really happy,’ ‘How does that colour make you feel?’
You want to put it back on how they feel in their outfits or in their bodies. You also want to focus a lot on what your body can do— abilities, skills, not appearance.
That’s interesting because I find a lot of the songs that my toddlers listen to is, ‘I love my ears because they hear, I love my eyes because they see, I love my mouth because I can smile, I can speak, I can sing.’
I notice that there was sort of this shift. Is this something that’s starting at a younger age already?
I think so.
I think we all want to be appreciated for who we are, for our skills, our strengths, what we bring to the table. That’s where legitimate confidence is going to come from. So that if my body grows and changes or my appearance changes, that’s OK.
I say it in the counselling room a lot and also just out there generally: I really hope that my appearance is the least interesting thing about me. And I hope the same for you. It can change. That’s no problem. You still are who you are at your core and the people who are in your life that love you are going to want you around because you’re funny and you’re compassionate and you’re kind.
Jennifer White offers some tips for breaking the cycle of unhealthy food talk at the dinner table:
- Having dinner around the table as a family is important for making kids feel part of the family unit.
- Don’t label your kid a “picky eater:” Provide options and if your child won’t accept the food now, try offering it later, even months or a year down the line.
- Have your child help with meal preparation, even simple tasks like washing potatoes. “The more kids participate in helping with the meal, even little ones, that increases the likelihood that they’re going to try a wide variety of foods,” White says.
- Try to keep dinner time and the meal table a stress-free place. That includes talking to your kids about their days, but not grilling them — and sharing a story from your day as well.