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Eating together as a family is a good way to instil healthy habits in your kids. iStockphoto
Eating together as a family is a good way to instil healthy habits in your kids. iStockphoto

How to build healthy bodies and minds from the beginning

Rachel Lewis looks at how a range of factors can influence your child's self-esteem and how you can help them feel positively about themselves.

It's not long before a parent's preoccupation with weaning switches to an obsession with creating healthy lunch boxes. In no time, parents go from chasing toddlers around the house to chasing teenagers away from the Xbox and from telling your children they're beautiful to warning them not to be proud.

A myriad of factors help to foster a positive body image in children but, worryingly, a recent report by an All-Party Parliamentary Group in the UK found that girls as young as five are concerned about their size and appearance.

In June, the UK government backed a leaflet (parent packs are available at www.mediasmart.org.uk) which encouraged adults to sit down with children as young as six and show them how digital trickery is often used in magazines and adverts to make models and film stars look perfect. The guide warns that enhanced images are giving both girls and boys a distorted sense of reality, low self-esteem and is affecting their body image.

"One thing is for sure, unless we start talking and teaching our youth about the reality of advertising and body image, especially given media connectivity today, things are sure to get a whole lot worse," says James Piecowye, the host of Nightline on DubaiEye 103.8FM and a lecturer at the College of Communication and Media Sciences in Dubai's Zayed University.

While the research might be worrying, the good news is that there's plenty parents can do to help forge a positive body image in their children.

DO Focus on achievements. Instead of commenting on an individual's appearance, focus on their personality and skills. "Give positive messages about your child being caring or helpful, good at piano or a good friend rather than just looking pretty," advises Clare Smart, a counsellor at LifeWorks Counselling and Development, Dubai (www.lifeworksdubai.com).

DON'T Run yourself down. Parents need to be aware of their own feelings about how they look and the messages they are giving their child. "Be conscious of any conversations about weight and appearance that could give a negative impression to your child," advises Smart. "Avoid criticising or commenting on your own or others' appearance as this will increase pressure on your children to feel dissatisfied with their own appearance. We are all bombarded with messages about being thinner, shinier, smoother and more beautiful - we don't need to pass on these messages to young people."

DO Eat together. It's good to share mealtimes so they become a relaxing and enjoyable event. While you should talk about food, it's best to focus on the importance of healthy and varied diets. It sounds simple, but a healthy balanced diet, physical activity and plenty of sleep will help young people feel better about themselves.

DON'T Compare. It's hard not to ask your child what reading level their friend has reached when you're keen for them to be doing well in class, but try to restrain yourself. "Between the ages of six years and 11 years, children begin to constantly compare themselves to their peers," explains Naeema Jiwani, a child development psychologist at the Human Relations Institute, Dubai (www.hridubai.com). "If a child feels incompetent in areas that are important to him, whether it's football, karate or maths, they are at risk of developing low esteem." Parents who constantly engage in these peer-to-peer comparisons cause more distress for a child.

Instead, parents should make sure their child has the opportunity to try out a variety of skills, sports and subjects to find out what they're good at, and to remind their child continually where their strengths lie.

DO Empathise. Children who frequently receive specific and detailed praise focusing on the process and effort involved, as opposed to the end product, have been found to be better adjusted and have healthier levels of self-confidence. "If your child doesn't make it into the football team, avoid saying: 'Work harder next time and maybe then you will get in.' This will crush the child's self image. Instead, it is better to say: 'It must make you pretty sad not to be a part of the team but you ought to be really proud of the effort you put into it'," suggests Jiwani. This way, you are acknowledging the child's feelings and empathising, thereby laying a strong foundation for healthy self-esteem, but also focusing on their efforts and holding the child accountable for any accomplishments - this builds a level of self-esteem that is independent of failures or successes.

DON'T Blindly accept media images. Help your child to develop their critical thinking skills by having honest and open discussions with them. Share your thoughts and ask your kids' opinions about how bodies are depicted in the media. Ask: "Do you think a lot of people really look like that?", "What do you think might have been done to that picture to make it look that way?"

"Studies have shown that children's body preferences and stereotypes are heavily influenced by the media, more so in videos than books, especially for younger children. Innocent films such as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid in fact send very inaccurate body-related images that children are constantly observing and emulating, from as young as five years," warns Jiwani. "It isn't necessary to ban these films, but just as parents monitor the nutritional content of their child's diet, they should also monitor the value of media they are exposing their children to and make sure it is age-appropriate."

DO Take action. If you notice any mood changes, significant weight change, solitary behaviour and a lack of willingness to talk about it, then be concerned. If you're worried about your child, speak to your doctor or consider signing your child up for a course such as Live. Learn. Style, which aims to build confidence and self-esteem in children and young women in Dubai. For more information, call 04 451 8958.

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