“Mommy, am I fat?”
The emotional pain rises in your heart to hear those words. “Father, please not my child, not this road!” you plead silently in your mind. Images and memories flood back to you from your middle school and high school days. And you feel: paralyzed.
Know that you are not alone. I have spoken to countless mothers over my years of prevention studies on body image and eating disorders. The most common theme I hear is that they feel “paralyzed” when it comes to knowing how to help their child avoid negative body image.
What to say.
What NOT to say.
Should I simply say nothing at all?
These overwhelming feelings of the unknown slip in and we, as parents, are rendered paralyzed. (Just the way the enemy would like it, may I add.)
After personally experiencing the depths of an eating disorder as a child, and the joys of full recovery as a teenager, my life became dedicated to helping others through their battle. Education, research, clinical training and biblical studies for eating disorder treatment and prevention characterized the following years upon years of my life. My days were built around cultivating a thriving private practice where daily, I was privileged to witness the renewal and healing of women from the bondage of eating disorders and negative body image…However, nothing could have prepared me for the day I discovered I would soon-be-a parent and found myself utterly humbled, scared, and on my knees. Lord, how can I possibly raise a child in this body-focused world?
Ah, but God is much bigger than the waves we see and fear. Take heart precious parent; there is a powerful hope found only in the Lord.
I had to get serious with God…okay Lord, how do we do this? And hope began to flow. The Lord gave me a key scripture to rest in, as He not only stilled my personal fears but also filled my heart with a passion to equip and counsel other parents experiencing the same angst.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
Equipping parents with children’s books, and assisting and encouraging loved ones became a deep passion and privileged mission of mine. We can, as parents, do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).
What can you do today? Here are 5 approaches that will make a difference:
Anticipate the Storm, Your Confidence is Key
We must come to the sobering fact that we cannot lock our children in their rooms and shield them from seeing or experiencing the outside world. (This used to be my clever plan.) But instead we can prepare them for the storm by strengthening our own resolve. This is an internal posturing of the parent to say, “I understand the ugly reality of this society’s view of beauty, and I know my children will see and face this same culture, but I trust in you Almighty Lord who is still bigger. Lead me with your wisdom as I raise them for you.” Things we anticipate with confidence cultivate an assurance of divine protection when the storm hits. Pray without ceasing.
The day will come when your child will approach you feeling insecure in this world; from either a comment another person made or having been teased about their looks. But you have been prepared in advance for this very moment and can now rest in confidence. Your child needs you to look directly into their eyes and patiently and empathetically listen as they share their feelings. Our children are very keen into the way we handle their insecurity. You want to smile and display your confidence, which will put them at ease. They will think, wow, Mom gets this stuff. They will be able to trust you as you share the truth of God’s word that His hands created them uniquely and perfectly… His peace will protect, transcend, and guard you both.
Prevention Begins At Birth
It is never too early to begin instilling in your child the foundation of truth that they were created uniquely, beautifully, and perfectly by God. It is never too late either. No matter how old your child, you can meet them where they are at today. On a daily basis I encourage parents to share with their children an aspect of how they were “hand-made” by God. Help to point out the very design of their hands…four fingers and a thumb for grasping…brilliant. When little ones are first learning the names of body parts, eyes, ears, hair, toes…always say, “God MADE your _____.” As they get older, help them give thanks to the Lord for the very functions that our bodies carry out. “Lord, thank you that we have arms for hugging and legs for walking…” The more we can posture our focus toward the gift our bodies are, as God designed them to be, the stronger the foundation will become in your child to resist the pull of having the world define their beauty and value.
Don’t Ignore the Physical Being of Your Child
Recently, there have been quite a few articles written that suggest it is NOT okay to compliment children on their physical appearance but rather advise we focus on inner qualities of personhood. This is an excellent step in the right direction. It is a wonderful reminder to a culture that is more comfortable complimenting children and teenagers about physical qualities than inner qualities. I love this movement toward highlighting the often-overlooked inner qualities … BUT before the pendulum swings to shunning all compliments of physical qualities … a word of caution: We ARE physical beings.
The fact is, we are physical beings God created, no matter which way we slice it. And if we are not focused on reminding our children that God handmade them physically, we leave the door open for the world to define their physical value and beauty. Strive to balance the inner and outer compliments you give your children … and always give credit where credit is due: the Creator.
Keep Your Child Connected to What Their Tummy Says
Keeping children connected to their God-given, vital ability of feeling hunger and fullness is key to maintaining and nurturing a healthy relationship with both food and their inner confidence to trust their body. We live in a culture that is hyper focused on external factors to guide eating and food: the calorie/fat content, how much, what time is it, and what will others be thinking if I eat this? An external focus lessens one’s ability to both feel and trust what their tummy is actually saying. I recommend to all of my parents the book, “Intuitive Eating” by Resch and Tribole (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.) A beautiful guide to making peace with food and the current hallmark used by most eating disorder professionals. When we, as parents have a healthy relationship with food, we can then assist our child in maintaining theirs. The bottom line is that our children were born with a strong connection to letting us know when and what they need to eat. We must keep them connected to this God-given gift as one of the primary goals to maintaining a healthy relationship with food, eating, and their body.
You Are the BEST Role Model.
Children look to us, as their parents, to set the tone for how they will discover more about themselves in their relation to the world and to God. How we feel about ourselves and the underpinnings of our own body image and self-esteem have a direct impact on our children’s body image and self-esteem.
When it comes to protecting our children from being negatively influenced by our own insecurities, it is important to be aware of our own self-image, and how it is communicated in the words we say. When considering this, it’s helpful to be aware of two different types of insecurities we may wrestle with:
- Known Insecurities – These are areas you know you are insecure about, such as how a particular part of your body looks or how you feel about your weight. Pray about these insecurities, intentionally inviting God to heal areas that need healing. Seek professional counsel if needed.
- Hidden Insecurities – These may surface in the words you find yourself saying. Be mindful of how the words you say may reveal things you struggle with unknowingly. Invite God to reveal these hidden insecurities that need to be restored by Him.
Tuck away in your heart the words found in Ephesians 4:29:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Remember, as parents, God created us beautifully, wonderfully, and purposely. What better way to share the truth of beauty in creation with our children than to show them that we find the beauty in ourselves?
Learn more about Dr. Megan and her work equipping parents, educators and clinicians wich children’s books.