Weight loss, once a loaded issue for adolescents, is now becoming a concern for children as early as 10 or 11, sometimes even younger. According to specialists in the field of eating disorders, 31 percent of 9-year-olds surveyed for one study were fearful of being fat; by age 10, the numbers rose to 81 percent. Another study revealed that as many as 50 percent of 9-year-olds and 80 percent of 10-year-olds in the sample had already dieted. Karen Sigmon, a program developer for the Poe Center for Health Education in Raleigh, North Carolina, says, "We've had girls as young as the age of 7 tell us that they need to go on a diet or they won't look pretty in their bathing suits."
Why do pre-adolescents have such weight worries? The biggest factor is our culture. With a media so obsessed with thinness that even a normal-sized actress such as Kate Winslet is called chubby, messages promoting a slimmer-than-slim ideal body type are relentless.
As parents, we also pick up on these messages that thin is better and we can easily pass on our own body-related insecurities or biases, even without meaning to. So how can we help our children be content with their bodies?
Analyze your own attitude toward weight and appearance. Kids will model your behavior, so if you're constantly critical of your body or frequently talk about food, fat and dieting, they will too.
Point out fallacies in media messages. Find examples that prove to your children that thinness does not buy beauty, success or happiness.
Talk about the genetic basis for differences in body types. Discuss the dangers of trying to change one's body shape through excessive dieting or exercise.
Avoid criticizing your child's body in any way. Even an overweight child needs support and encouragement. Many health professionals now warn against putting children on weight-loss diets and recommend instead working with a nutritionist to establish good eating habits for the whole family.
Encourage your children to be active for the fun of it. Help them to enjoy what their bodies can do. Avoid linking exercise to weight control.
Emphasize how God views our bodies. Talk about how each of us is created in God's own image and is immeasurably valuable to him. As the psalmist wrote in Psalm 139:14: "I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well."
Give children chores and responsibilities at home. Provide opportunities for them to reach out to others in service. This helps them focus on the needs of other people and reminds them that they are needed and valuable just the way they are.
?Pamela Shires Sneddon
Speaker, author, mother of nine
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