THE BLOG
01/29/2016 05:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

4 Ways to Help Children Develop a Positive Relationship With Food and Their Body

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For as long as I can remember I've always felt out of control around food. Some of my earliest memories as a little girl include: hiding away in my bedroom eating handfuls of candy and chocolate, raiding the cupboard when everyone was asleep and skipping meals so I could look like one of my beloved Barbie dolls.

While I might not be a mother yet, I've worked with enough women (including mothers) who feel "crazy" around food to know how important it is to foster a positive relationship with food and your body as soon as possible.

What is especially important for parents to understand is that it's very rare for disordered eating to develop out of the blue. Disordered eating, for a large majority of people, is a learned behavior that has been shaped by previous experiences with food, many of which stem from childhood. Other factors contributing to disordered eating include our relationship with our bodies and our core self esteem.

Children develop a physical and an emotional relationship with food through observation of their parents eating behaviors (i.e., physical practices, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, etc.). Parents' relationship with food is a significant predictor of children's eating behavior -- now and into the future.

Therefore, parents need to be mindful of their own relationship with food and their bodies not only for their health and wellbeing, but also for the health and well being of their children.

The following are some important points to consider in the development of healthful eating behaviors for children:

1. Your body is NOT your whole self
Research reveals that children start to notice their bodies, weight and appearance as early as 5 years old. Therefore it's important to teach children to understand that their physical body is not their whole self. In other words, there is a whole lot more to children than their physical appearance.

Tips:
  • Be a positive role model for your child by refraining from food and body shaming.
  • Talk about all bodies as being beautiful in their own right despite how they look.
  • Teach your child that bodies house creativity, strengths and talents. Encourage your child to find and explore theirs.

2. There are no "bad" foods. Food is just food.
Labeling food as "good" vs. "bad" in my opinion teaches children how they ought to feel about themselves when eating food. In other words if a child eats a cupcake they are told is bad or "naughty" then the child is going to inevitably internalize that they're doing something "bad." Instead we need to teach children that food is only "bad" if we label it as "bad."

Tip:
  • Neutralize food by talking to your child about food where it isn't "good" or "bad" -- food is just food. This may mean being mindful of labels such as "junk food" and "bad food."

3. Health is more than what you weigh.
I could write an essay on the fact that health is possible at any size and that being thin doesn't necessarily mean you're making healthful choices around food (especially if being thin involves dieting behaviors such as restriction, food and body shaming, counting calories, emotional eating, etc).

A major game changer for me in my journey from mess to message was when I realized that health involved more than just my physical body. My definition of health encompasses spiritual and emotional components which help me to decide whether or not to exercise vs. rest, eat cake vs. a handful of nuts or eat chocolate because I just want to vs. eat chocolate because I'm craving something sweet.

Tips:
  • Allow your child to break food rules and eat for enjoyment as well as for satiation.
  • Teach your child to think about what they feel like eating before seeing the options available so that they can start to tune into what their body needs at that time.

4. Explore non-food-related coping mechanisms.
I used to emotionally eat all the time. When I started to see emotional eating as a trigger that something in my life wasn't quite "right," I was able to open my mind up to the fact that I could cope with my problems without turning to food.

Tip:
  • Help your child develop non-food related coping mechanisms. Talk to your child about their feelings rather than soothing their emotions with food. Celebrate children's achievements with physical time together as opposed to a "special" food-related treat. Create an environment at home where talking about feelings is acceptable and encouraged.

For more advice on developing a healthy relationship with food and your body visit Practise Glow and download my free Ebook: Be Free.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.