(CMR) It can be infuriating when relatives or friends comment on your child's weight or eating habits, especially when their comments could affect your child's self-esteem.
It may be hard not to say something to relatives who've gone an extended time without seeing each other; however, focusing on physical appearance isn't healthy.
Talking about body size can be damaging, whether it's a compliment or said with concern for the child's health. Research shows kids internalize these messages and can develop disordered eating habits.
Talking about a child's size may make them feel like their bodies are a problem they need to solve when they have no control over the rate they grow, and it's harmful to children of all sizes and heights.
Body talk can create pressure for those with smaller bodies to want to stay small and those with larger bodies to want to shrink. We may not control messages our children receive outside our home, but we can set the tone for conversations within our walls.
It can be tough to know what to do when relatives comment on your child's size or eating habits. Here's how Parents magazine suggests you navigate those moments and ask family to stay away from body-related talk.
Address relatives appropriately
Identify the individuals you can talk to ahead of time and make a phone call or send an email.
With close relatives, author Virginia Sole-Smith says to try something like, “We're so excited to see you, and just so you know, we're not doing body talk around the kids. We're aware kids are getting many messages around bodies that we're trying to get out in front of. Can you help us with this?” Enlisting their aid makes them feel involved rather than attacked.
With more distant relatives, you may need to redirect them in the moment. They may focus on body size or appearance because they don't know what else to talk about. You can say, “Ask him about the cool dragon novel he's reading, or let's tell you about summer camp.”
It's important to approach your loved ones with empathy because they likely don't mean to be negative. “Starting from a place of acknowledging their good intentions and moving on to explaining the boundaries you're trying to set can go a long way,” says Christy Harrison.
Also, try not to get frustrated when they slip. You'll likely need to circle back to the conversation many times before it sticks. Old habits die hard, and diet culture is deeply entrenched in our psyches.
Be sure to advocate for your child when a relative is out of line. Sole-Smith advises saying things like, “We trust his body, and we're not worried about his eating right now.” Or “the doctor says she's growing fine.” Your child will hear you and internalize that nothing's wrong, which is what you want.
Talk to your child after
Sole-Smith believes it can be better to let the issue slide and talk to your children about it later. You can say, “Grownups get a lot of messages around food, but I don't want you to worry about that.”
Don't be afraid to approach negative self-talk, either. Saying something like, “It makes me sad when your cousin says she doesn't like her stomach. I think round stomachs are great,” can help a child appreciate all body sizes, including theirs.
You can also ask your child how their relative's comments made them feel, says Harrison. Or start with something like, “Well, that was weird.”
Don't feel bad if you don't get to address the issue promptly. It's understandable to panic and not know what to say, or you may not have the bandwidth to take it on. “The good news/bad news is you'll have another opportunity, so keep practicing,” says Harrison.
Your kids will learn more from you anyway. “Remember that what you say and do has more influence on your kids than what a relative does because you are a larger authority figure in their life,” says Sole-Smith. “Praising body diversity and calling out fatphobia should be a routine part of parenting, so it takes the pressure off any one moment.”