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You’re Teaching Your Toddler Fat Shaming, Says Science

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I once worked with a tween who had fallen victim to her mother’s obsession with diet and weight. Every few months, her mother began some new diet that she heard about from a friend who promised that it would work, and she enlisted her daughter to join her. The relationship was complicated. Mom wanted a best friend to help her along her path to healthy living. Daughter wanted a mom …and maybe some ice cream on a Friday night. She was too afraid to speak up and wanted to support her mom, so she joined each new diet, secretly stashing food in her room for late night snacking.

Her eating habits were a mess, to say the least. And her self-image was shot before she even entered middle school. For this little girl, the world revolved around food. Talk at the dinner table often centered on food and weight and goals for losing weight. School lunches reflected the diet of the moment and she often asked friends to share food as a result. She was starving. She developed an unhealthy relationship with food and felt powerless to control it. 

Related: Losing My Baby Belly Without Damaging My Daughter

We all know that we need to watch what we say around our kids, but new findings from the University of Otago in New Zealand suggest that even toddlers as young as 32-months-old pick up on the fat shaming attitudes of their moms. A team of researchers showed pairs of pictures of two people (one obese, one a normal weight) to 70 infants and toddlers. The faces of the images were covered to put the focus on body type and the moms were given a questionnaire to gauge their attitudes toward obesity.

Results showed that infants preferred to look at the obese body type while older toddlers preferred the body type within average range. But that’s not all. Researchers found a strong correlation between maternal anti-fat attitudes and toddler preference for average-weight figures. The more the mom expressed anti-fat attitudes in the questionnaire, the more the toddler looked away from the obese figure in the photo. 

One of the difficult parts of being a mom is that we’re always on the clock. Infants track their moms throughout the day and as infants grow into toddlers and preschoolers, that tracking becomes mimicking. We provide that first important learning environment and, like it or not, they pick up on our attitudes and behaviors. They are always listening.

My client developed maladaptive coping strategies to confront the constant dieting and body shaming that occurred in her home, and that took years of hard work to repair. Here’s how to keep your kids from having the same struggles…

1. Make time for you. Every parent needs time away from the kids with other adults who can listen, provide support, and help you through the lows. I struggled to get out when my kids were toddlers because my husband was always on the road or working late nights. I learned that trading child care with a neighbor during the day gave me time to meet a friend for coffee one day and my neighbor time another day. No mom is an island. Find your support system and use it. When you get time away, either with friends or alone at your local Starbucks (imagine that?), you have the opportunity to recharge and work through some of the stress that might otherwise slip out in front of your kids.

2. Use positive self-talk. My clients always laugh when I first teach them the power of self-talk. No one wants to be caught talking to themselves, it seems. The truth is that when you learn to re-frame your negative thoughts and say those positive thoughts out loud, you not only improve your own level of optimism but you spread it to those little listening ears around you. Re-framing your thoughts and engaging in positive self-talk gives you some control over the situation. When you feel like you can make a difference, you’re more likely to take steps to improve whatever obstacle has you down.

3. Create a healthy relationship with food. The food wars can be a particularly difficult piece of the parenting puzzle. It’s maddening when your once well-fed toddler wakes up one morning and decides to eat nothing but fish shaped crackers from now on. It can actually impact the entire family. Instead of planning meals around the one who only eats crackers, focus on promoting a healthy relationship with food overall. Plan “try something new” nights and “guest chef” nights where you put the kids in charge. 

Part of raising kids with healthy habits entails considering our own habits and how they might impact our kids. Self-reflection and changing habits can be hard, but it’s good for the whole family.

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Photo: Getty