By  Kristen Scher, Graduate Student Intern at Family Roots Therapy, certified Body Trust Provider and Intuitive Eating Coach.

Think back to when you first noticed feeling negatively about your body image. How old were you? Many adults say they had good self esteem about their body until third to sixth grade. This onset of negative body self esteem during ages eight to twelve mirrors the data we have about what age people started their first diet. A 2015 study by Common Sense Media showed that half of girls and a third of boys ages 6-8 want thinner bodies. The same study reported that 80% of 10 year old girls had been on a diet. Most of the science shows that the primary drivers of body shame are classmates and media, followed by family members’ comments. While most of us have an awareness that these years are an informative time for negative body self esteem, we often fail to recognize what is also happening from ages 8-12. Any guesses?…

That’s right, the onset of PUBERTY. Preparing for puberty is often the time that people start feeling uncomfortable in their bodies and self-conscious of their weight. Most people don’t know that children’s bodies need to gain weight in preparation for puberty. Without this knowledge, parents may  feel anxious about their child’s weight gain, restrict their child’s access to sweets or push them into physical activities their children don’t enjoy.This leads to more body shame, a rupture in body trust, and often a rupture in trust of the parent/child relationship.

Dr. Shelley Russell-Mayhew, PhD. of the University of Calgary’s Body Image Lab found that for kids who will undergo menstruation, puberty comes with an average weight gain of 40-50 pounds and a height increase of 10 inches. For kids with testes puberty comes with an average weight gain of 50-60 pounds and a height increase of 12 inches. Weight gain is NORMAL and Necessary to undergo these changes. AHere are some  scientifically-proven ways to support your child’s health in a weight neutral way:

  1. Fuel their body. Make sure they eat every few hours and drink plenty of water throughout the day. We all need a combination of carbs, protein, fats, in addition to vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables. Underfueling can affect your body negatively, impact hormones, mood, and cause weight gain in the long run. While carbohydrates are often vilified, they are actually the preferred energy source of the brain. When you cut out carbs, you are literally cutting yourself off from the food most likely to sustain you and keep your body functioning. Without those carbs, the body will use its own muscles, organs and fat for energy instead. Contrary to popular thought, it doesn’t go for the fat first.

  2. Help them get good sleep. As Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, writes in her book, Body Kindness, “Good sleep makes a ton of difference in our energy, attitude, and wellbeing. When we are sleeping our immune system, muscles, and tissues are all strengthened and repaired. Energy is restored and essential hormones are released.”

  3. Teach your kids self-compassion. Let them know that they aren’t the only ones struggling with negative self image. Bringing in compassion for others helps kids be kinder to themselves. Name the systems that are profiting off of our self-hate for our bodies. By talking about Diet Culture as a system of oppression we help kids place the blame where it really belongs; external systemic pressure, not their own bodies.

  4. Focus on joyful movement.  When it comes to exercise, focus on fun and adventure! Biking, hiking, dancing, ice skating, roller-blading, anything that brings them joy. If you can do it together as a family, that is even more beneficial.

  5. Focus on connection with family and community. What are some things you do as a family? Are you hikers? Campers? Board gamers? Travelers? What communities are you a part of outside of your immediate family? Focus on the culture or cultures that your family belongs to and ways to become more connected to them.

  6. Commit to zero “diet talk” in the house. Unpacking fatphobia is the most important step in helping our kids to be resilient against Diet Culture. Unpacking your own internalized weight stigma and accepting your own body in whatever size or shape it is meant to be in is one of the most protective and beneficial things you can do for your child. It can be difficult, but it is worth it.