Mar 16, 2011 9:32 PM
When your child is just starting school, you may imagine that worries about her body size and shape will come with the territory later, in her teen years. But it turns out that your young child may already be worried. Kids as young as 5, 6, and 7 years old can be worried about their weight, according to experts.
"It's surprising how many kids in this age group are worried," says Eileen Stone, a child and adolescent psychologist in at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D.
In a KidsHealth poll of more than 1,000 children ages 9 to 13, more than half said they were stressed about their weight -- no matter what their weight was.
While childhood obesity is a real problem with real consequences, no one benefits when a child, no matter her age, feels bad about herself. As a parent, what can you do to help? Stay positive and focus on health, not weight, the experts say. Here's how to spot body image worries and help your child develop a healthier self-image.
Sometime the signs of poor body image can be pretty clear, Stone tells WebMD. Children may ask, "Do I look fat?" or poke at their bellies. They may stop eating foods that you know they enjoy, especially around their peers. "Sometimes they'll comment on what other kids are eating -- saying things like, 'That's not good for you,'" Stone says.
Less obvious signs that kids are worried about their weight might include:
Whether your young child is overweight or not, you can help him feel better about himself -- and instill healthy habits -- with these tips from health and child nutrition experts:
Don't let a young child's appearance, size, or shape become a preoccupation of yours or hers. "Try to keep the focus on health," says Chris Tiongson, MD, a pediatrician in Fargo, N.D.
Help young kids relate to their health in terms they can understand. While children between age 5 and 7 might not grasp the meaning of future health problems like high blood pressure, Tiongson says, they may see how a healthier body can make their life better right now. For example, being healthier may mean they can play longer at recess or have more energy at soccer practice.
With very young children, it's important to focus on adopting new ways of doing things, rather than on weight loss. In fact, some experts recommend discouraging young kids from even weighing themselves. However, if your daughter is struggling with obesity after age 10, you may want to talk with her doctor about other ways to help.
"The goal should be healthy behaviors," Tiongson says. Positive changes might include watching less TV, getting more active play, cutting out sugary drinks, or eating more fruits and veggies. Changes such as these add up to noticeable health and fitness changes over time.
Small kids are like sponges, says Elizabeth Ward, RD, a dietitian in Reading, Mass. They absorb everything around them. "Stop talking about your body image and other people's looks in front of them!" she says. When parents have a negative body image, kids pick up on that and may start to doubt their own.
You can also set a good example by eating better and getting more exercise yourself. While they may not choose the same activities as you, they can find healthy habits they enjoy when you lead the way. For example, you may decide getting fitter means jogging, but your child may love riding her bike or playing in the park. Either way, you both win by developing healthier habits.
Pay attention to the media messages that are aimed at young kids and help them identify when messages are negative and unhealthy. Also look at your own reactions to messages about attractiveness and self-worth and to terms like "fat" and "ugly." Do your kids hear you agreeing with the messages or using those words?
Make sure your kids -- no matter how old they are -- understand that people come in all shapes and sizes, and that good health is the ultimate goal, says Ward, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. This can be especially important if your child's shape is different from that of others in the family -- for example, if she has a stocky build, but her mom, dad, or siblings tend to be tall and lean.
Improving your child's nutrition and getting him to be more active is only half the battle in helping him have a good body image and self-esteem. Ultimately, you want to remind him of all the great things he is besides a "body" -- such as being friendly, strong, or smart. "As parents, we need to be cautious [so] that we're focusing on the positive and that kids understand that no matter what your weight, you're a valuable person," says Stone.