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5 Tools You Can Use to Strengthen Your Child's Body Image

When it comes to how kids feel about their body, parents can play a key role.

Key points

  • Shifting focus from weight and food rules to making healthy choices and taking pleasure in food can increase good feelings about the body.
  • Providing affirmations and full acceptance with physical affection is effective.
  • Being clear that about the dangers of dieting can protect kids from feeling like they need to "fix" their body.

A few years ago, I found my nine-year-old sitting on the floor in front of her open closet and crying. I'd been waiting for her to come downstairs and get her coats and shoes on so we could make her weekly dance class for what seemed like forever. Frustrated, I went hunting through the house; I was thinking she'd again misplaced her favorite leotard or found a run in her tights. Those would have been easy parenting problems to solve. What I found was much worse: through her tears, she said "I feel fat." While my mother instinct told me to rush in and counter with "No, you're not!" my professional self held back, knowing that was not helpful nor a just response.

Since that conversation, I've worked both subtly and overtly to teach both of my daughters to not fear fatness as well as to build more respect and appreciation for their physical selves. I've used (and continue to use) many of the same tools and strategies I share with the parents of my clients. All children can benefit from the message that we don't value ourselves or others based on the size and shape of our bodies or our looks.

Parents, in particular, can play a pivotal role when it comes to helping their children build the kind of body esteem that will see them through all kinds of body changes, from weight gain and weight loss to injuries and aging.

If you're wondering where to start, take a few cues from one study which isolated specific behaviors of mothers of daughters with positive body images. (While the study was done on mother-daughter pairs, you can apply these strategies to all genders and gender identities.)

Body Image Strengthening Strategies for Parents

1. Be Loving Towards Your Body and Others'

Even though 48 million Americans embark on a diet each year, including many of your child's friends and relatives, it's essential to prevent those values and habits from seeping into your child's life. One way to do this is by avoiding putting down your own body, talking about weight or weight loss, and talking about other people's bodies and weight. Researchers call this technique "filtering," and you can think of yourself as filtering out the messages of diet culture and a "thinner is better" attitude from your own home. By doing so, you help protect your child from the popular notion that they need to look different to like themselves or be liked by others.

2. Be Clear That Dieting Is Not Healthy

Emphasizing the fact that dieting is dangerous can help protect your child from ever engaging in it in the first place. And preventing children from embarking on a diet is extremely important as dieting ups the risk a child will develop an eating disorder five-fold. Parents of kids with a positive body image actively communicate to their children that they don't condone or approve of them trying to manipulate how their body looks by restricting foods or investing a significant amount of time exercising to burn off or earn their food. (And going back to strategy number one, they don't diet themselves either.)

3. Offer Acceptance

There's no doubt that your child will be getting endless messages from media, peers, and possibly even family members, coaches, or teachers that their body needs to be thin to be acceptable or "healthy". With this in mind, it's important to counter that idea for your child whenever possible.

The more often you can actively reinforce a positive message about your child's body's abilities, the better able they will be to internalize it and build body esteem for themselves. You can do this by focusing on the positive things your child's body does (ie walks, runs, jumps, dances, laughs, thinks, feels). You can also normalize body changes by pointing out, for example, that fat gain is a normal part of puberty for girls. You can offer your child physical affection in the form of hugs and hand-holding as often as they will let you.

4. Talk About Popular Images and Messaging

Parents of children with positive body images spend time talking openly about societal values they feel are misplaced. They counter or challenge images in media and teach their children to be conscious consumers of it.

For example, helping your child understand that the exaggerated bodies of their favorite cartoon characters are unrealistic—and even unhealthy—in real life. For teens using social media, talking about how images are manipulated and the reasons others might do this (for profit or social clout) can be helpful. You also explain that just because we live in a culture that values beauty, thinness, or muscularity and fears or condemns fatness doesn't mean that it is right. You can be verbal about the fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes—large and small, fat and thin, tall and short, dark and light—and then reinforce that your child's body is no reflection of their abilities, value, or worth.

5. Reframe Messages About Eating and Activity

Parents who avoid passing along rules and knowledge about food and exercise have children who feel better about their bodies. For example, warning children that certain foods are unhealthy, will cause weight gain, or might lead to disease creates fear around eating. It also creates a feeling of guilt when a child decides to eat food deemed unhealthy by a loved one. Parents who avoid strict guidelines with food and exercise better equip their children to find balance and a sense of calm with eating, as well as the skills to handle ubiquitous and harmful messages from diet culture when they do come up.

For example, the notion that all carbohydrates should be cut from the diet because they cause everything from inflammation to diabetes to weight gain will seem much less plausible to a child who has not been raised to fear or limit foods. To help your child, you can start reframing conversations you have in your own home about nutrition, health, and activity by avoiding linking those things to body size or weight and instead talking about how they improve well-being. For example, saying we need to be active because it improves our mood and sleep as opposed to because it helps us avoid weight gain will be much more supportive of your child developing a positive body image.


Maor, M., & Cwikel, J. (2015). Mothers’ strategies to strengthen their daughters’ body image. Feminism &Amp; Psychology, 26(1), 11–29.

Patton GC, Selzer R, Coffey C, Carlin JB, Wolfe R. Onset of adolescent eating disorders: population based cohort study over 3 years. BMJ. 1999 Mar 20;318(7186):765-8. doi: 10.1136/bmj.318.7186.765. PMID: 10082698; PMCID: PMC27789.

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