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How to talk with your kids about bodies and weight

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

African American mom and young daughter sitting outside at a cafe

One of the toughest memories I carry from my own childhood is feeling shame about my body. When I was growing up in the late 1970s, my parents, my friends, and seemingly everyone else around me was immersed in diet culture—an umbrella term for outdated values about food and health. The message was always the same: Be thinner.

Now, as a mother of teenage daughters, I find myself struggling with how to broach the subject of weight and bodies without sending them the same kinds of signals I received. For guidance, I sat down with Rebecca Puhl, PhD, a psychologist and professor who specializes in weight bias and bullying.

Tips for starting the conversation

If you don’t have a healthy history of talking with your own parents about your weight or body, it’s hard to know how to approach the topic with your kids. Puhl says there are a few basic guidelines to follow.

Create a healthy environment

Our kids are always watching, so make sure you’re walking the walk. Puhl says modeling healthy behaviors, both physical and emotional, makes a huge impact on your children.

This can start small, like keeping a scale out of sight or not having one at all; engaging in healthy eating around your children; keeping your home stocked with plenty of healthy foods to choose from; and modeling an active lifestyle that includes everyone in your family. “Healthy habits are more likely to set in when the whole family is involved,” Puhl says, “rather than only encouraging one child or imposing this on one child.”

A healthy environment also means an emotionally safe space, beginning with acceptance. “It’s important to respect people of diverse body sizes,” Puhl says, and to challenge common weight stereotypes.

Check your own biases

Before having a conversation about weight with your kids, you need to explore where your own attitudes about body size come from.

“For parents, self-reflection is critical,” Puhl says. “Start by asking yourself questions like, What assumptions do I make about people of different body sizes? Are these actually accurate, and are there counterexamples that I can think of? How do my views make me feel, and do I want my child to feel the same way?”

Staying positive about our own bodies can be difficult for those of us raised in diet culture. Puhl says if you need to, it’s okay to fake it till you make it. For me, challenging my own biases has involved ongoing work with my therapist. I’ve made a lot of progress, but I’m not done yet—so I practice self-love as often as possible while I wait for my mind to catch up with what I’m trying to model.

Parents don’t have to have their own weight or body struggles to have biases. As a culture, we’ve been inundated with the “thin ideal,” a term describing the 20th-century shift toward a smaller ideal body, especially for women.1 This ideal has shaped the narrative around bodies and weight for the last hundred years. It’s starting to improve, but prejudice against bodies of size still exists everywhere, from media and popular culture to daily community life.

Learn the language

In her research, Puhl has found that many parents who’ve tried to talk about healthy bodies with their kids can’t find the right words. “We know that about two-thirds of parents talk to their child about their weight,” she says.2 “And a lot of times, despite having positive intentions, parents end up expressing criticism, judgment, or blame toward their child.”

Puhl has some language guidance born of her own research. In a recent study, she and her colleagues found that teenagers respond positively when parents use neutral phrases like “healthy weight,” rather than terms like “obese,” “fat,” “chubby,” or “high BMI.”3 Words like “curvy” and “thick” also rated well, especially with teens of color. Take the opportunity to ask your teen what their preferred terms are, then use those in your conversation.

Even when parents used neutral phrases, though, just the fact of talking about weight resulted in negative feelings for the teen participants.

“In general, you should ask yourself what the goal of the conversation is,” Puhl says. “Is it only about weight? Usually the same goals can be achieved by switching the conversation to be about health or healthy behaviors.”

Other experts caution that moralizing food can create shame around certain eating choices. Assigning foods a label of “good” or “bad” may lead kids to begin hiding and secretly eating the “bad” ones. Instead, try to use neutral language for foods traditionally referred to as “guilty pleasures.” A slice of cake is just a slice of cake, for example—not a forbidden treasure, a special reward, or something to beat yourself up about.

Meet kids where they are

For young kids, framing conversations around how bodies work can be effective and fun. “Talk to this age group about building a strong body and getting vitamins to grow,” suggests Puhl. The US Department of Agriculture offers resources such as games and coloring pages, as well as educational videos that talk about food as fuel for a healthy body.4

When it comes to older kids, says Puhl, “parents may have more success with their actions, rather than their words.” This is when modeling healthy behaviors becomes even more important. But conversations should still be happening in conjunction with modeling.

This is a good time to talk about diet culture—what it is and how it can damage self-esteem. “Educate your child about the harms of dieting,” says Puhl. “Explain that diets are unhealthy, that they can lead to eating patterns that worsen your emotional health and your physical health—and that diets frankly don’t work very well over the long term.”5

Keep an eye on their phones and other devices

The thin ideal and representations of unrealistic body standards are still present in our kids’ lives, especially on social media. Puhl urges parents to monitor what their children are seeing, look out for problematic images, and encourage them to talk with you if anything they come across makes them feel bad about themselves. There’s no way to prevent all toxic messaging about bodies from reaching kids, but open communication lines are a great way to help them stay safe.

What to say if your child is unhappy with their body

Sometimes kids feel unhappy in their own skin. It may be the result of bullying or just a regular part of growing up. If your child expresses unhappiness or discomfort with their body, remind them that people come in all shapes and sizes, and no body type is better than another.

If your child mentions feeling unhealthy, though, you may want to talk with them about nutritional and lifestyle changes they can try (for example, drinking more water or being more active). Keep the focus on health, not weight.

No matter the root cause, it’s important to validate your child’s feelings and talk about why they feel at odds with their body. If you suspect bullying at school, a call to the administration may be in order. This could also be a good time to find a mental health professional who specializes in adolescents. Seeing a therapist gives your child someone neutral to confide in and work through struggles about body image or self-esteem.

When to be concerned

In a perfect world, parents would be able to raise strong, body-confident children who only see positive content from society and the media. But chances are high that everyone’s kids will interact with toxic messaging about diet culture and ideal bodies at some point.

If you see your child doing any of the following, it may be time to intervene:

  • Hiding food
  • Restricting food6
  • Skipping meals or not eating regularly
  • Showing discomfort about eating around others
  • Suddenly losing weight
  • Dieting or exercising obsessively
  • Focusing obsessively on physical flaws, real or imagined
  • Taking multiple bathroom breaks around or during meals (this can be a sign of purging)

Disordered eating is another red flag. This term broadly describes unhealthy eating behaviors that don’t fit the clinical criteria for an eating disorder. A person with disordered eating has an unhealthy relationship with food that may or may not result in an eating disorder. According to Puhl, this behavior is something you should pay close attention to and address.

How to intervene as needed

If you spot any odd behaviors related to your child’s eating, Puhl says to trust your parental instincts. You know your child better than anyone. Once you decide action is warranted, here are several steps you can take:

Make a list
Document all the signs and symptoms you’re seeing. This will help when talking with your child about your concerns, and it’ll also help establish a routine you can share with a medical professional. If your child is 13 or older, you can suggest they use this screening tool from the National Eating Disorders Association.7 It may help them reflect on their own attitudes and behaviors around food.

Call your pediatrician
Puhl recommends talking to a trusted source your child feels comfortable with. Ideally, your pediatrician knows you and your child well and can be a good starting point for seeking professional help.

Connect with resources
Many resources are available for parents who suspect their child may have an eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association provides support and information for individuals and families. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), among other similar organizations, offers peer support groups.

Find a therapist
The best long-term support you can give your child is to find a mental health professional who specializes in eating disorders for their age group. Browse our directory to find a therapist near you.

Parents need support, too

Our society has made significant progress in talking about bodies. Because of the body positivity movement, better representation in the media, and greater acceptance of health at every size, shape, and ability, the world is a safer space for many of us. Even so, parents are still up against a parade of negative messaging when it comes to helping kids stay healthy and feel good about themselves.

If you could use support in navigating your own relationship with your body, as well as personalized guidance on having tough conversations with your kids, a therapist is an excellent resource. Find someone to talk with today.

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.