New year, new you. The four-word slogan is used as rallying cry at the start of each new year to help galvanize people into creating “better” versions of themselves. Often, that means committing to a new exercise routine or eating a cleaner diet in order to get into the shape you want.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to tone up or shed pounds, but as mamas, we need to keep in mind how those goals affect our little ones. And while a focus on being healthy can be good, there’s research that indicates you shouldn’t talk about your weight loss resolutions in front of your child.
Past studies have shown that youth feel pressure every day from their peers and the media to fit the so-called “perfect” body type, affecting their self-esteem and mental health. But additional research has shown that mothers also have a tremendous impact on how their children—particularly their daughters—view their body.
Speaking to USA Today, Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of Mayo Clinic’s eating disorders program and a child psychologist, said, “Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image. Even if a mom says to the daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I’m so fat,’ it can be detrimental.”
A 2013 JAMA Pediatrics study, for example, discovered that teens were more likely to diet, binge eat and use unhealthy weight-control methods if their parents talked to them about food while focusing on their weight. (Think, “Don’t eat that. It has too many calories.) Another study, published in 2011 in Body Image, found mothers who are critical of their own bodies can, in turn, influence their kids to have body insecurities and poor self-image.
Although these studies focus on adolescents, research exists that show children as young as 5 years old start to worry about their weight. A 2015 report from child advocacy group Common Sense Media found that 5 to 8-year-old kids are more likely to dislike their bodies if they think their moms are unhappy with their own. The same report revealed that more than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as 6 to 8 years old believe their ideal body is thinner than their current weight.
Even more shocking: One in four children started to engage in dieting behavior by age 7, according to Common Sense Media.
Speaking to CNN, report author Seeta Pai, vice president of research for Common Sense Media, said, “They already know about dieting, and some might have even tried it out or restricted their food intake at certain times, so that’s pretty alarming. It’s almost like things are a little too late if you are going to wait all the way until teenage years to talk to kids about body image.”
So what’s a mama to do? There’s good news: A 2004 study published in the journal Health Education Research found “a positive parental role model may be a better method for improving a child’s diet than attempts at dietary control.” So while obsessively talking about weight loss in front of your kids can be harmful, modeling positive eating behaviors is the most effective way to help your kids eat healthy, too.