How to Promote Body Positivity In Your Kids When You Don't Feel Body Positive

mother and daughter dressing up at the mirror

franckreporter / Getty Images

If you have a young child, you’re probably aware of some alarming statistics, among them that weight concerns and body dissatisfaction have been reported in children as young as 3 years old. One study found that 80% of elementary-aged girls revealed that they have tried to lose weight with a diet.

Another study found that children who had mothers who were actively dieting were more likely to have ideas about dieting. This shows that a parent's behaviors and language directly impact their children, especially regarding body image and acceptance.

The good news is that there are more and more people who are attaining a positive body image, thanks in part to things like the body positivity movement. The movement was created in the 1960s by fat, queer Black women, with the hope to create a voice for and to liberate marginalized people and their bodies. It has expanded since, and today, there is a large conversation among people of all races, genders, and ages to learn to love the body they are in.

For some, it’s a struggle to let go of the messaging of diet culture that has been ingrained in us for many years. This can make it hard to discuss food, exercise, and body image with your children, especially if you are struggling to be body positive yourself.

“One of the best ways to encourage positive attitudes around food and body image with children is through modeling and teaching by example,” says Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist, and chief medical officer of LifeStance Health. Here are some ways to do just that.

Change How You Talk About Food

One way to instill healthy habits is by keeping food neutral—such as not referring to foods as “good” or “bad.” Additionally, try not to put certain foods on a pedestal or give them as rewards.

“In my work with patients who have eating disorders, we really focus on intuitive eating,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn. “I talk to my patients about listening to your body when you’re hungry, keeping balance and not ‘restricting’ what you eat, allowing yourself to have all types of food with ‘unhealthy’ foods in moderation."

Children can generally recognize when they are hungry or full, so don’t push them if you think they haven’t eaten enough. “Help your child nurture a body-guidance system and avoid phrases and behaviors that might override it, such as ‘make sure you clear your plate,’” says Milda Zolubaite, BANT registered nutritionist and disordered & emotional eating specialist. Zolubatite suggests having them recognize how hungry or full they are on a scale of one to five to try to connect with their bodies.

Try to avoid using sweets as a bribe to eat vegetables. “Instead, try using words of praise about their choices or special time together as rewards,” says Kristin Wilson, MA, a licensed professional counselor, certified clinical trauma professional, and chief experience officer at Newport Healthcare.

You should also try not to limit food. Instead, offer nutritious alternatives or snacks if your child vocalizes they are hungry between meals. Controlling foods or limiting access to them can backfire—it can cause a child to want to overeat, and also become a source of stress, says Monica Vermani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, and author of “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas."

Involve Your Child

Parents can do a bit of research themselves about what is in their food, and what those nutritional labels really tell us.

“It’s good to familiarize yourself with some of the main qualities of the macronutrients, [for example], carbohydrates are really useful, as they give us energy and the ability to move and dance around to the favorite songs in the living room,” says Zolubaite. This is also very useful for foods traditionally labeled as "junk food." Instead of demonizing them, find positive qualities like, "they give me pleasure" or "I love sharing these foods with my friends or family," suggests Zolubaite.

Kids really enjoy helping out in the kitchen, so consider having them join you when preparing dinner. It’s a great way for them to build their fine motor skills as well as learn about what they are eating.

“Engage children in creating and enjoying healthy meals,” says Dr. Vermani. “Planning, shopping, and preparing meals together is fun, positive, creative, and joyful. It models positive attitudes around food, and can create life-long healthy eating habits.” You can also take your child grocery shopping with you, plan a food-tasting adventure around town, or even sign them up for a cooking class.

Use Affirmations that Focus on What Food Helps Your Body Do

Using words of encouragement and affirmations can be helpful and powerful. “Build a child’s confidence without being prompted by insecurities,” says Wilson. Some examples include saying with your child, "My body is strong, my body helps me play, I can trust my body, and my body deserves kindness."

Focusing on what your body can do and not your physical appearance can help to boost a child’s self-esteem.

Likewise, foods should not be “earned” after a hard workout or sports game. Exercise isn’t something we “have to do” because we had a bagel for breakfast. “Reframe exercise as something you do—not for body image—but its many benefits, including enhanced mood, strength, stamina, and enjoyment,” says Dr. Vermani.

Discuss Social Media, Filters, and Photoshop

Many kids, especially tweens and teens, spend a lot of time on social media where there are an abundance of digitally altered images. Be sure to explain how what you see on the internet isn’t always real. Images can be edited, and people can enhance, smooth, or minimize their bodies. “Encourage critical thinking of toxic messages from the media and help your child understand that many of the bodies in the media have been photoshopped and manipulated,” says Zolubaite.

Teach your kids that a healthy body comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and that all bodies should be accepted. “Help your child understand that their body will change over time and that it is normal and to be expected,” says Zolubaite. Explain that comparing your body to others is like comparing apples and oranges. Every body has different abilities and capabilities, Zolubaite reiterates.

Ask For Help

There's no shame in asking for help, even as an adult. If you are struggling with your own body image, Dr. Vermani urges you to seek help to allow both you and your children to live a more authentic life.

Parents can use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to learn how to reframe thoughts around food and their body image. Parents can focus on things they like about their body, and learn to separate their self-worth and their appearance, says Dr. Vermani. Therapy, support groups, and self-help books can also help you learn about the unhealthy habits or “blueprints” you may have been taught—accidentally or not—as a child.

“Avoid warning children about weight gain,” says Dr. Vermani. “If you are worried about their weight, talk to their doctor about your concerns.” It’s not recommended to mention your child’s weight to them at all or critique their body, as remarks like that can stick with them.

If you are working through disordered eating or body image issues yourself, Wilson suggests seeing a therapist to help and being mindful of what you say or do around your kids during the healing process.

“Even if you are still on a body acceptance journey yourself, remember that children are like sponges and they notice and hear everything,” says Zolubaite. “Are you talking positively about your child’s body and other people’s bodies, but scrutinize and put down your own body at home? Do you reject and shrug off any compliments? Put yourself last? All these signs of low self-esteem can be easily taken on by your child.”

Your behaviors and language truly do have an impact on your child and how they view their body and food, so be mindful and aware. If you say something negative and soon realize it, explain or tell them why you said that thing and how you’re working on your own self-acceptance. They will appreciate your honesty.

Pass Along The Message to Everyone In Your Child’s Life

Though the aforementioned study specifically found that mothers who diet were more likely to have children aware of their behaviors, all caregivers can help children feel body positive. “All parents and caregivers, through their words, actions, reactions, and choices can, without realizing it or intending to, pass along negative thoughts, behaviors, blueprints, schemas, and self-scrutiny to their children," Dr. Vermani.

It's important to remember that our habits and language may not change overnight, but that it is something to be conscious of daily, especially if you have a child listening to and looking at you.

“Promoting body acceptance over time requires parents to model positive self-image themselves,” says Dr. Patel-Dunn. “Changing the language we use and focusing on talking about our bodies with respect and positivity can shift the way kids think and set them up for success in the future."

A Word From Verywell

Being a parent is hard work, and it can be overwhelming trying to model positive body behaviors if you aren't body positive yourself. Seek help with therapy, books, or support groups to learn healthy ways to speak to your children, and yourself, about their bodies and food.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Common Sense Media. Girls and body image: Parent tip sheet.

  2. Balantekin KN, Savage JS, Marini ME, Birch LL. Parental encouragement of dieting promotes daughters’ early dietingAppetite. 2014;80:190-196. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2014.05.016