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, the words we use may harm our children.
The pressure that parents place on their children, particularly if they live in smaller bodies, bigger bodies, or have undesirable eating habits, can deter them from developing a healthy body image.
The words may not be overtly negative. However, when internalized, kids might interpret words differently than intended:
How Children May Hear Food and Body Comments
Check out how innocent, well-intended comments may be heard and interpreted by a child:
“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 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.)
How Body Image May Be Influenced
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 shape or size they’re growing up in.
So you get anxious about how much or what your child is eating.
Kids pick up on that anxiety and question whether their bodies are normal. Whether they are normal.
Kids want to be healthy, but fear of future ill health 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 their body weight, shape or size may have the opposite effect than you intend.
How to Talk to Your Child about Weight and Food
The best place to start is by not making comments about your child’s body or weight at all.
Here are some other tips to consider:
- 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 food helps them grow, get strong and have more energy for life, school and sports.
- Embrace different body shapes and sizes. All bodies are good bodies!
- 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 about himself with a comment such as “everyone is different,” or “There are many advantages to being bigger!” Then ask him what he thinks.
The Bottom Line on Negative Comments to a Child
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 Help?
You may also want to read:
The Body Image Book for Girls (podcast)
Body Image Issues for Boys (podcast)
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