When your child is just starting school, you may imagine that worries about her body size and shape will come with the territory later, in her teen years. But it turns out that your young child may already be worried. Kids as young as 5, 6, and 7 years old can be worried about their weight, according to experts.
"It's surprising how many kids in this age group are worried," says Eileen Stone, a child and adolescent psychologist in at Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D.
In a KidsHealth poll of more than 1,000 children ages 9 to 13, more than half said they were stressed about their weight -- no matter what their weight was.
While childhood obesity is a real problem with real consequences, no one benefits when a child, no matter her age, feels bad about herself. As a parent, what can you do to help? Stay positive and focus on health, not weight, the experts say. Here's how to spot body image worries and help your child develop a healthier self-image.
Children and Obesity: Know the Signs of Poor Body Image
Sometime the signs of poor body image can be pretty clear, Stone tells WebMD. Children may ask, "Do I look fat?" or poke at their bellies. They may stop eating foods that you know they enjoy, especially around their peers. "Sometimes they'll comment on what other kids are eating -- saying things like, 'That's not good for you,'" Stone says.
Less obvious signs that kids are worried about their weight might include:
- General anxiety
- Not participating in activities with other kids
- Using negative language to describe their bodies
- Not wanting to participate in activities where people may see more of their bodies, such as sleepovers or swimming
- General depression
- Comments such as "no one likes me"
Boosting Self-Esteem When Kids Are Worried About Their Weight
Whether your young child is overweight or not, you can help him feel better about himself -- and instill healthy habits -- with these tips from health and child nutrition experts:
Focus on health.
Don't let a young child's appearance, size, or shape become a preoccupation of yours or hers. "Try to keep the focus on health," says Chris Tiongson, MD, a pediatrician in Fargo, N.D.
Help young kids relate to their health in terms they can understand. While children between age 5 and 7 might not grasp the meaning of future health problems like high blood pressure, Tiongson says, they may see how a healthier body can make their life better right now. For example, being healthier may mean they can play longer at recess or have more energy at soccer practice.
Measure success in healthy changes, not numbers on the scale.
With very young children, it's important to focus on adopting new ways of doing things, rather than on weight loss. In fact, some experts recommend discouraging young kids from even weighing themselves. However, if your daughter is struggling with obesity after age 10, you may want to talk with her doctor about other ways to help.