2 Reasons Why You Need To Stop Commenting On Your Child's Weight

You may think you're only teasing, but commenting on your child's body can have lasting, irreparable damage. Here's why.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 01, 2024

A study published in April in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy examined the mental health impact of "family weight teasing," which refers to comments, jokes or behaviors directed at a family member about their weight, body size or eating habits.

These remarks can range from seemingly harmless to outright cruel and have significant emotional and psychological impacts regardless of their intended severity. Sadly, parental weight teasing is a prevalent phenomenon across the world.

"Due to the influence of cultural narratives surrounding bodies and health, well-intentioned parents may frequently make comments about their children's weight, whether through teasing or encouragement to diet. Although weight talk can be harmful from any source, it is particularly harmful when perpetrated by family," the researchers write.

Researchers found that such teasing can heighten both anxiety and depression for the person on the receiving end. Comments such as "are you sure you want to eat that?" or "looks like someone's getting a bit of a belly!" may seem minor to the person making them, but can lead to self-consciousness, lower self-esteem and feelings of shame and guilt around food and exercise, potentially fostering an unhealthy relationship with both.

Here are two reasons why parental weight teasing negatively impacts a child's mental health, according to the study.

1. It Distorts A Child's Self-Image

Research shows that if a person perceives their body weight negatively, regardless of their actual weight, it is associated with a higher risk of depression. These subjective perceptions of body weight are often based on external influences, including remarks from family members based on their own perceptions of weight and dieting, socio-cultural influences and popular media, that can fuel weight stigma and glamorize thinness.

"In recent years, cultural diet language has shifted more toward language that moralizes food such as 'clean eating,' 'natural foods' and labeling food as 'good' or 'bad.' This moralizing language contributes to adverse psychosocial outcomes," the researchers explain, highlighting how such language can exacerbate weight stigma and demonize essential food groups such as carbohydrates and fats.

When a person is repeatedly teased about their weight by family members, they often believe and internalize these remarks. The individual begins to see themselves as flawed or inadequate, regardless of their actual physical appearance or health. This internalized negativity can persist long after the teasing stops.

This can also create biases where the individual focuses disproportionately on their perceived flaws. Even minor changes in weight or appearance can become a source of significant distress, as the person magnifies these issues in their mind. This can lead to an obsessive preoccupation with body image.

In extreme cases, this can severely impact daily functioning, as individuals may go to great lengths to hide or fix perceived flaws, including avoiding social situations or engaging in excessive grooming.

In an attempt to cope with these challenging feelings, individuals may also resort to unhealthy behaviors such as restrictive dieting, binge eating or excessive exercise. These behaviors can further harm physical and mental health, leading to a cycle of negative body image and unhealthy attempts to change one's appearance.

2. It Creates A Lack Of Psychological Safety

"According to attachment theory, family messages have the capacity to create environments of either safety and security or rejection and abandonment, depending on the nature of the message. Preliminary literature shows this to be particularly true when messages center beliefs about weight, body image and food," the researchers write.

Psychological safety involves feeling secure and accepted in one's environment without fear of being judged or ridiculed. Weight teasing breaks this sense of security. When trust is eroded, individuals may become guarded and less likely to share their feelings or seek support from their parents.

Children can start to anticipate negative comments or ridicule whenever they are around their parents. This fear can cause anxiety and stress, making the home environment a source of tension rather than comfort. The child—at any age—may feel on edge, constantly trying to avoid behaviors or situations that might trigger teasing, even though it is not their fault.

Consequently, weight teasing can deeply damage parent-child relationships, leading to hurt, resentment, mistrust and emotional distance. It also discourages authenticity, as children might change their behavior, hide their eating habits or dress differently to avoid weight-talk. Over time, this can contribute to feelings of isolation and alienation within the family, as the child no longer views their parents as a safe haven for support and comfort.

"If an individual receives hurtful comments about their weight from the people who are supposed to be their sources of support and safety, they may internalize these comments as rejection and abandonment, leading to a sense of inadequacy," the researchers explain.

Individuals may also feel disconnected from their bodies and themselves, with the emphasis on weight and appearance narrowing their sense of identity, overshadowing positive traits and achievements. Embarrassment and shame stemming from teasing can make a person reluctant to engage in social activities where their body might be visible or where they fear further ridicule.

Family weight teasing, even when intended as harmless fun, is likely to have significant and damaging effects on a person's mental and emotional well-being. The emotional scars from such teasing can linger for years, influencing how individuals see themselves and interact with the world.

It is crucial for parents to be mindful of the power of their words and actions. Researchers suggest using more weight-neutral, compassionate, respectful and health-centered language to combat diet culture narratives. It is also essential to challenge unhelpful perceptions around food, body size and exercise to better support oneself and one's family in creating a truly safe home environment.

Wondering how parental weight teasing may have affected your relationship with food? Take this test to learn more: Eating Attitudes Test

A similar version of this article can also be found on, here.

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