Like a lot of young girls, I struggled with my body image growing up. In high school, I restricted my eating to the point that a dietician needed to help me gain back the weight I'd lost. I'd thought that by cutting out "junk" from my diet, I could look like the models in the fitness magazines I was (and still am) obsessed with, but I took my "healthy eating" a bit too far.
Fully aware of how easy it is to get caught up in body image as a teenager, I was still shocked to read that 8-year-olds' self-esteem can predict their risk of eating disorders by the time they're 14, according to a report printed Thursday in The British Journal of Psychiatry. Kids who said they weren't satisfied with their bodies were more likely to have eating disorders as teens, found the study, based on data from the Avon Longitudal Study of Parents and Children.
We all know kids get increasingly aware of their bodies as they grow up, but 8 years old is startlingly young to worry about how you look in your skinny jeans. "My impression is that girls and boys are growing up faster every year almost," study author Nadia Micali of the University College London Institute of Child Health has said. "They are more mature and faced with issues they probably shouldn't be faced with so early."
Still, how to you teach kids healthy eating habits without implying that there might be something wrong with their bodies? Aviva Braun, a licensed clinical social worker who offers therapy to girls and women with body-image and eating problems, has suggested calling healthy options "always" foods and unhealthier choices "sometimes" foods to avoid turning eating into a battle between good and bad. Of course you don't want your kids going overboard on Oreos, but telling them they're totally off-limits could make them think treating themselves is never okay.
It's also important to show your kids what truly healthy habits look like. Mothers' histories of eating disorders predict higher concern with weight in girls and dieting in boys, according to the BJP study. If your kids see you putting down your own body, they may start to wonder if they should do the same, so make sure you focus on feeling healthy rather than looking skinny, too. Learning how to have a healthy outlook is a lesson that will last kids through their teenage years and beyond.
Marissa Laliberte is an editorial intern at Parents magazine who loves running, baking, and drinking coffee. Follow her on Twitter: @mjlaliberte