As parents, we want our kids to be healthy and happy, right? But these days you’d be forgiven for being confused beyond an inch of your life to figure out exactly what this means. Many parents are struggling with their own relationships with food and eating, or have done so in the past and do not wish that for their own child. In addition, we’re bombarded with fear-mongering messages about so-called “nasties” in foods which only serves to heighten anxieties about the impending damage we’re inflicting on our children. As a parent myself, I understand how difficult to can be to navigate the challenges of raising this new generation, where the pressures seem similar in some ways, way worse in others (you could not pay me a million bucks to be a teen these days…..). So, I want to present you with a scenario – a very common one, as it turns out – about the complexities of health, weight and bodies.
Scenario: Your child or teen says “I want to be more healthy/eat more healthy/eat less “junk” food”
Step on up folks, and choose your own adventure. You respond by:
1. Saying nothing, or not much. Surely they’re too young to be thinking about all that!
2. Saying “that’s great!” (because it’s a good thing to want to be healthy, right?) and actively helping your child make those changes.
3. Asking for more information about what they mean by “health” or “healthy” and where they got the idea from
4. Feeling alarmed, maybe because you may have had a pretty rocky relationship with “health” or your body yourself or understand that “health” is pretty complex!
5. Hitting the proverbial roof and panicking that your child is heading towards an eating disorder.
If your child or teen makes a claim to “want to be more healthy” or “eat more healthy” or similar (and I’m well aware that it’s not always terribly overt), I’m going to be straight – the most appropriate reaction in today’s culture is somewhere between response 3 and response 5. I’m not saying this to create panic where panic is not due but young people today are getting very, very confused when it comes to health, and bodies. It’s also fair to say that statistically, many parents are too. If you sit somewhere between heightened vigilance and panic, you’re roughly in the ball park.
What’s the problem with supporting a child or teen to make “healthy changes” if that’s what they want to do?**
There’s two main issues as I see it.
Because health is conflated with body shape, size and weight. And we’re all part of this very messed up culture which bombards us with messages and images about what “healthy” looks like.
When your child says “I want to be more healthy” what they’re most likely telling you is “I’m not happy (about something), and I want to change my body (because I think that’s what the issue is).”
Your childs desire to “be more healthy” most likely has something to do with wanting change their appearance, and their beliefs about doing so. They may wish to be larger, thinner, smaller, leaner – and making the (incorrect) assumption that “health” has a direct connection to body size. They may also have internalised the idea that if they’re more “healthy” (aka a different size) then that may come with other benefits such as having more friends, not being teased, feeling more comfortable in clothes. And, sadly, this may be the case. But it’s not their fault, there’s nothing wrong with their body. It’s our culture that is so very messed up and if we lead them to think that yes, if they change then that will make life better, then we are colluding with the very idea that they are grappling with. Yikes. We ourselves may have, or may still be, putting a lot of effort into “health” or our appearance and kids have ears and eyes. They notice. They hear. Again, it’s not your fault either, we have all grown up in this culture and it takes an enormous amount of courage to step away from the status quo. We all need support. But in effect, your child is offering you a red flag in telling you what they *think* is the issue, when in fact it’s something else altogether. But they’re not alone, are they – they’re just picking it up very young.
So what’s this got to do with food and eating?
Diet culture sends us strong messages that the way we can focus on “health” is to put more emphasis on food choices …when in reality, food choices are only a piece of the “health pie.” What we actually understand that is many different factors, including genetics, stress, stigma, and our emotional experiences play a very important role in our physical health outcomes…not to mention our general sense wellbeing which, in my opinion, has a lot to do with overall health.
OK, so what to do?
If your child talks about “health”, rule number one is to make it clear to your child that health is NOT just about what we eat, how we move and is DEFINITELY not about what our body looks like. It’s also about how we feel about ourselves, about how easily we can get stuff done in this world, much of which is not totally in our control. It’s important that you emphasise that there’s NOTHING WRONG with their body as it is, and it’s important we care for our body as it is by speaking kindly to it and treating it nicely.
A question you can ask yourself is “what is my child’s intention?” If the intention behind their pursuit of “healthy” is to change their body, and their dissatisfaction is coming from a place of feeling unworthy or unacceptable, they are going to get plenty of strong support from a culture which perpetuates the narrative that certain bodies and more worthy and valuable. And that this has a direct connection with what you eat. How can you tell if this is the case? A child who is expressing body dissatisfaction might speak unkindly towards their body, express a desire to want to look like someone else (perhaps a friend), compare themselves to others or start to appear uncomfortable at times eg. pulling at clothes or body, changing clothes, becoming upset or generally just “not themselves.”
– Take some time to examine how your child has got this message – from home, from school, from media, our culture? It’s probably a combination of the above.
– Take it easy on yourself – it’s not your fault so please don’t head down the blame path. But you can play an important and positive role in shifting the direction of your child’s concerns.
– Sit down and take the time to talk with your child about their concerns. Take them seriously.
– Be aware if this is hitting your own soft points – try to react calmly but clearly if you can.
– If your child has had messages from a particular source, follow up. Teachers and schools are often unaware that well-intentioned projects or assignments can trigger off these thoughts for kids.
– Get support – from a Non Diet Approach Dietitian who is specifically trained to talk through these issues with you. They can also equip you with some skills to speak with your child, or school. It will be best to make the first appointment for you, rather than your child so that your child doesn’t get the message that there’s something wrong with them, and they’re being “taken to the Dietitian” (take it from a Dietitian, we really dislike it when people set us up to be the “food police!”)
– Dismiss your child’s concerns
– Panic. It’s a good thing that your child or teen is talking to you!
– Collude with them if they have plans to cut out foods, or engage in activity that you suspect has roots in poor body image (such as wanting all of a sudden to go running). These are early warning signs that your child is experiencing body dissatisfaction, which can have a myriad of serious physical and emotional consequences.
In summary, the most important messages you can share, in your own way, are:
- Health is not a moral issue. You are not a “better person” if you are healthy. You are not less worthy is you do not enjoy good health. Every human being deserves respect and care regardless of their degree of health.
- Health doesn’t “look” like anything in particular. You can’t tell how healthy, or unhealthy someone is by looking at them.
- All bodies are valuable, and we can take good care of our bodies in our own way.
- There is no such thing as a “good” body or a “bad” body
- Changing your body, or not, does not say anything about you as a person.
- Your body is your business. Other people’s bodies are their business.
*(See downloadable PDF below for all tips)
I just want to reassure you that it’s perfectly normal that “choosing your own adventure” when it comes to the body concerns of your child or teen (along with all the general challenges of parenting other humans) can feel daunting. It’s OK to reach out for support in communities like ours, or others online such as Dare To Not Diet Society or Moderation Movement group. We also offer talks to schools (parents, staff) on the topic of “Body Positive” which can support your community to send strong, consistent messages about bodies.
Deep breath. Doing the best we can can feel like a tough slog against the tide of cultural pressures, but please know there are lots of people doing hard work in the activism space. Everyone, in every body has an important role.
**If your child has had a diagnosis, like an intolerance or a disease of some description then I want to be clear – it makes sense that changing the way they eat/move/rest my assist health and wellbeing.