Negative comments to any child about food and weight may have the opposite effect than you intend. Learn the impact and what you can do instead.
Are you concerned your child’s eating? Too much or not enough? Maybe you’re worried about his health or a recent weight change.
You want your child to make good food choices. It’s easy to make an innocent comment when he takes a second helping or snacks on too much “fun food” between meals without realizing the impact you’re making.
Negative comments to a child about food and weight may harm his body image, self-esteem and view of food.
You’re well intentioned, so why would these words hurt children?
Kids internalize these messages. And the message you meant to send to your child isn’t necessarily the message he gets from your words.
How Negative Words Shape Self-Esteem
Unconsciously, our words hurt children.
The pressure that parents place on children, particularly if they need to gain weight, lose weight, or change their eating habits, can distract them from developing a healthy body image.
The words may not be overtly negative. Internalized, look at look how kids might interpret these words differently than intended:
“If you eat your dinner, you can have dessert.” (Dessert is the most important part of this meal.)
“Be a good boy like your cousin, and eat your vegetables.” (If I eat my vegetables, then I am good. Implied: I’m not good if I don’t eat my vegetables.)
“Don’t you think you’ve eaten enough?” (My mom thinks I’ve eaten too much.)
“Oh, she’s stocky like her Dad.” (She thinks I am fat.)
“If you would just try this new food, life would be better/easier/healthier.” (My Dad doesn’t like me or accept me unless I eat the foods he wants me to eat, or the foods he likes to eat.)
“All the other boys are bigger than you, because they focus on their health.” (The other boys are better, and my Dad is unhappy with the way I look.)
“You’re not active enough–your girlfriend runs track and you should try that too.” (My Mom thinks I make no effort at being active. My Mom isn’t happy with how I look.)
What Influences Body Image?
These comments about your child may negatively shape his body image.
The basic message your child internalizes from these comments is: there is something wrong with me and I need to change in order to be okay and accepted.
You want the best for your child, and that means eating healthy food and being treated fairly by others, no matter what body size he has. So you get anxious about how much or what your child’s eating.
Kids pick up on that anxiety and question whether their bodies are normal.
Kids want to be healthy, but fear isn’t motivating.
Studies show that sociocultural pressure and pressure from parents to have a smaller body may increase the amount of food adolescents eat when they’re not hungry and affect how they think about food.
So negative comments to any child about food and weight may have the opposite effect than you intend.
What You Can Do Instead
The best place to start is by not making comments about your child’s body or weight at all.
Here are some other guidelines:
- Have a neutral response to food choices. This might be hard because we know the difference between foods your child needs for healthy growth and “fun foods”. But when you classify foods as “good” or “bad”, your child feels like he’s doing something wrong when he eats “bad” foods.
- Be careful not to emphasize health too much. “Health” is vague, and your child might internalize your words as a comment about his weight and body.
- Focus on how your child feels and how the food helps them grow, get strong and have more energy for school and sports.
- Be tolerant of different body shapes and sizes.
- Neutralize your child’s self-consciousness without a solution to “fix” food choices or his weight. For example: if he tells you he’s bigger than the other kids at school. Don’t say: “you need to eat more vegetables and exercise.” Instead, use the opportunity to shift how he thinks of himself with a comment such as “everyone is different.” Then ask him what he thinks about it.
The Bottom Line
While it’s tempting to comment on your child’s food choices, eating performance and body, it’s best to avoid doing so. Kids can be self-conscious and vulnerable, especially through the middle school and high school years when they are building their body confidence.
Placing your child’s choices, actions or body in question can push a fragile self-worth to a potentially dangerous place.
Negative words can hurt in and of themselves, or through the pressure they put on your child.
Be a proactive and positive supporter of your child with regard to food and nutrition and understand your child is learning about these concepts, and himself.
Want more tips and help?
Reina SA, Shomaker LB, Mooreville M, et al. Sociocultural pressures and adolescent eating in the absence of hunger. Body Image. 2013;10(2):182-190. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2012.12.004