How do you protect the current generation of children from forming damaging perceptions of weight and food? Jane Fallon Griffin explores the turning tide in addressing weight gain and young people. 

Most of us have grown up subconsciously equating weight gain with failure and weight loss with success but at a time when instances of disordered eating are on the rise, what can we do to protect this generation of children from forming damaging perceptions of weight and food?

According to national eating disorder organisation Bodywhys, in 2017 eating disorders accounted for 14% of Irish children and teen psychiatric hospital admissions.

Eating disorders accounted for 14% of Irish children and teen psychiatric hospital admissions in 2017

In Ireland, an estimated 1,757 new cases of disordered eating are diagnosed in the 10-49 age group every year. Of that 88 % were female and 11% were male, however, the number of boys with eating disorders is continuing to rise.

Tipperary counsellor Majella Kennedy explained that the use of words like "fat" and "obese" around young children creates extremely negative connotations at a young age.

"There is a shame in it and anything that brings up shame is quite a strong feeling for all of us", she explained.

Rather than place all our focus on weight loss or weight gain, Kennedy said that it is more important to give our kids a model of what good health is about.

"It's about modeling to live a healthy lifestyle’, she explained. ‘I think that begins at a very early age with our children."

Leading by example is the best way to improve your child's self image

She said that healthy living should begin at a young age, starting from "putting on the wellies, putting on the coats, going out, getting the fresh air, getting the exercise".

"Rather than just looking at one thing to isolate that piece, we need to look at it in the overall", she said.

She said that using words with negative connotations has a far-reaching impact and that children carry that terminology with them. "What will happen is that will go into the playground and into the schoolyard", she said. 

"Children at a very young age don’t have the cognitive ability to distinguish what is right or what is wrong, what's appropriate, whats inappropriate."

Kennedy said that it's important to explain to children that people are different but that weight should not be a central issue in life. "It's about talking about shapes and sizes and we all come in different shapes and sizes", she said.

Beyond this, there's an aspect of leading by example that needs to be passed down. 

"It’s about sitting down with them and talking about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. To change our terminology, to change our vocabulary and it's easy to do it once we get the practice but it really is about practicing it", she said. "Our children won't model what we say. They will do what we do."

"There are so many reasons why people are heavier than what they might be, might need to be or might like to be", she added. Discussions about this have important lessons for children regarding their own weight. 

When it comes to talking to children who are over- or underweight, the counsellor said that it is important to encourage the child to reflect rather than labeling them. 

"I would develop the practice of self-reflection with children, anyway, for anything that they do be it behaviour, weight, whatever", she said.

She said it is best to start the conversation by talking about the goals that you've decided to set for yourself such as walking more and ask them what they would like to do.

"They need to reflect and make connections themselves", she explained. "How do I see myself? How would I like to see myself? What do I need to do to be more healthy, to be more active, to have more energy?"

Avoid negative language around body image when talking to children and teenagers

"Get the child to self-reflect rather than labeling, because we do so much labeling as parents", she said.

She said labeling of children was "detrimental" to their mental health and often had long lasting impacts. 

"I have people coming to my practice at the ages of 40, 50 and 60 [discussing] the messages that were fed to them as children and the damage it has done to their self esteem and confidence all the way along," she added.

"It's hugely important that we as parents are very conscious of the messages that we give to our children all the way up because they internalise it and that becomes their world view of themselves." 

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