Raising healthy children – especially girls -- is challenging in an age when the media sets unrealistic standards about the perfect body. It's all too easy for children to fall prey to eating disorders or unhealthy preoccupations with weight, food, or body image.
While both mothers and fathers have tremendous influence on daughters and sons, it seems that good relationships between mothers and daughters are especially important for helping girls grow up with good eating habits, self-esteem, and a positive body image.
Consider a study published recently in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. It found that teenage girls' desire to be thin or lose weight was based at least in part on their perception of what their mothers wanted for them. Girls in the study were more likely to diet if their moms had done so. A third of the girls in the study reported wanting to be thinner (only 8% of boys expressed this wish).
We all know that excess weight can contribute to health risks and disease, but being obsessed with weight can lead to some very serious conditions, such as anorexia or bulimia. The challenge, experts say, is to help our daughters find the right balance.
"It is a very delicate balance between promoting a healthy weight and not placing too much importance on body weight," says Evelyn Tribole, RD, author of the antidiet, self-help book, Intuitive Eating.
The key, experts say, is to choose lifestyle habits like healthy eating and regular exercise for reasons of good health -- not just to lose weight or fit into a special dress. Focus on the health benefits of these lifestyle changes to help free your daughter from thinking her self-worth is equated with her weight, Tribole says.
It's Never Too Early to Start
It's also important for parents to be good role models, experts say. That means watching what you say within earshot of your impressionable daughters, from a very young age. (I recently overheard a 4-year-old girl tell her mom she didn't want to eat a cookie because "it will make me fat.")
"Moms have to be careful of not only what they say to their daughters but also their body language," says clinical psychologist Peggy Elam, PhD. "Little girls pick up when mom complains about her own weight, makes comments about others or shows her fat bias through expressive body language."
Be aware of your own dieting practices, and your beliefs and prejudices about weight, and keep them to yourself so you don't set your daughter up for a lifetime of dieting in pursuit of an unrealistic body shape, advises Elam.
"Girls restrict their food intake, and when they are unsuccessful at attaining their dream weight, they become depressed and feel like failures, which sets up feelings of low self-esteem," Elam says.
Elam's advice? Don't focus on meeting external standards, but help your girls be the best they can be.