Ensuring parents’ changes for a healthier lifestyle don’t negatively affect their children


We all want to live a happy, less-stressful and healthy life; and we take cues on how to attain those goals from the surplus of resources offering the keys to better living.  The messages urging us to eat right, sleep well, work out wisely and reduce stress confront us at every turn, swipe and click in our day-to-day. For some, these messages inspire introspection and re-evaluation of our lifestyles, which often results in decisions about changes we would like to make. However, these positive resolutions could have unforeseen consequences on family-life.  It seems counterintuitive; how could efforts to make positive lifestyle changes result in unwanted effects? Well, much of this unplanned impact has to do with what children perceive and understand from their parents’ new behaviors and changes at home.

We know that children make meaning of the world not only from direct messages they receive from parents, but also from by watching their parents’ actions and observing their conversations and interactions with other adults. So if parents set unrealistic goals about their shape and weight, their children may copy their behavior, without understanding the context. For example, parents who speak highly of eating various foods and as many nutrients in each meal, and then eat only vegetables and proteins at the dinner table, may be modeling a different message than what was intended. The child may mimic that avoidance of certain foods from their parents, but for their developing brain, such an avoidance of important nutrients, could cause serious developmental delays and various health risks.

So how can you make sure your healthier lifestyle will not prove detrimental for your children?

  • Be a model of a balanced eating and exercise regimen for your children. Assess your decisions and goals; do they include complete avoidance of certain foods or adherence to a very strict workout schedule?  If you do not want your kids to mimic that behavior, consider reevaluating your parameters of measurement and success so they are more realistic and flexible.
  • Avoid using certain “diet” terms and definitions (like “calories”, “lose fat”, etc.) which could be repeated and over-valued by children. Furthermore, avoid one-sided or totalistic phrases, such as, “I have to run each morning,” or “We are never having cake at home.”
  • Refrain from tying together the consumption of certain foods with a resulting behavior; “After this dinner, I can’t eat anything tomorrow!” Or, “I have to run 10 miles after this meal.”  Be a model for flexibility around eating and exercise.
  • Involve your children in your decisions. Explain to them why you have decided to change your behaviors. Educate them about nutrients and exercise, and how both affect their bodies. Involve children in healthy lifestyle behaviors, to the extent that suits their age, preferences and activity level. For instance, the entire family can go biking together on a weekend, but young children will probably be able to ride no more than 10 miles and will need more stops to rest.

Orchestrating a healthier and more rewarding life is a positive goal. When all family members understand correctly and enjoy the change, new behaviors are more likely to endure and improve the quality of life for parents and children together.

Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, PhD, is a psychologist and a researcher at The Eating Disorders Research Program at Stanford University. Dr. Sadeh-Sharvit is now recruiting mothers with histories of eating disorders whose children are between 1-5 years old, to a new parenting program study. Parents who are interested in this program are invited to contact her at shiris@stanford.edu or 650-497-4949 for more information.

Discover more about our Eating Disorders Research Program.


One Response to “Ensuring parents’ changes for a healthier lifestyle don’t negatively affect their children”

  1. Ladan Mizrachi

    i am interested. My daughter since a year and a half is picky eater



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