Teaching kids to listen to body messages

January 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Four things your child might say about his or her body and why it's important for you to pay attention!

By Steve Sisgold

As infants, we live naturally in a state of whole body awareness; Vitality, curiosity, and passionate enthusiasm literally pours through our bodies as pure awareness. As children grow older, their cognitive awareness begins to develop. Children learn to rely less and less on body intelligence once mental intelligence kicks in.

In a culture that places greater value on thinking then feeling and emphasizes reason over gut-knowing, our body's important messages are often suppressed or simply go dormant. As parents, it's important to encourage our children to trust their body's messages such as butterflies in the stomach, body temperature changes, clenching of fists, nervous sweats, etc...to navigate their everyday experiences with greater ease and insight into situations that could be potentially harmful.

1) No, I don't want just one more bite!

Don't push your kids to overeat when their body tells them they are full. A study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests that parents stop teaching their children the once popular cardinal rule of the dinner table, " clean your plate, eat it all". According to the professional dieticians who conducted this particular study, this type of training contributes to overeating and obesity. The study showed that when three-year-olds were served bigger than usual portions of macaroni and cheese, they ate what they wanted and stopped when they were full. But the same experiment, done a couple years later, showed that five-year-olds had already learned to ignore the body signals that told them when they'd had enough to eat and instead ate more whenever they were served more.

In today's economy where families are closely watching how they spend money, parents are often unaware about the "ignore your body's messages" they are forcing on their kids related to not wasting food. Case in point: A mom friend of mine recently went with a fellow mom and their respective 5-year-olds to get frozen yogurt after preschool. One of the boys didn't initially finish all of his yogurt. He said he was full. He obviously knew how his body felt and he ate what he wanted and that was enough for him... However, his mom said to him, "I'm not going to waste my money on buying this yogurt if you're not going to eat it all," so what did the little boy do?? He finished it all or else he knew he wasn't going to get to come back to the yogurt shop again after school.

2) I don't need that jacket, Mom!

Parents at times unconsciously teach their children that what they feel is not accurate. It isn't necessarily intentional and it often occurs because the parent doesn't want to feel what they are feeling from the child's request or emotion or it is an inconvenience for the parent. For example, "Mommy I'm so hot in this store, I want to take my sweater off" and the mom, who is carrying several things at once, can't stop to help her child right then and so says, "YOU'RE not hot and it isn't hot in here, keep it on" That teaches the child to think, "Hmm, maybe I don't know what I am feeling?"

A client told me about her husband recently filling a bath for their son. The boy screamed when he stepped in, but the husband then ran his hand through the water and said ," It is not too hot, see my hand feels fine." When I pointed it out to the husband, he got it. He was overriding what his son was telling him feels because he didn't want to admit that maybe he did make it too hot.

Prevent this situation by simply running a hot and cold dialogue with your child, asking questions, "How does this temperature feel to you? Are you feeling cold outside, should I get you a sweater? Are you too hot with this blanket on?

3) Ouch that hurts!!

Trust your child when he or she says something hurts. Pain from our bodies is a sign something is wrong and it needs our attention--we don't want to teach our children to ignore these signals. Everyone has a different pain threshold and a parent's and child's usually aren't the same. As adults we can deaden our bodies to painful sensations that would easily make a child cry...How many times as an adult have you noticed a minor cut or a bruise and you have no recollection of how you got it? Children notice these little scrapes and bruises immediately and will come and show you...Mom, Dad, I got a boo-boo! We become increasingly desensitized to our body's pain if we are taught to ignore it from an early age.

4) My stomach feels like it's on a roller coaster ride!

Pay attention to consistent stomach discomfort around specific events in your child's life such as morning anxiety before going to school, sadness about being with certain friends (there could be bullying or teasing happening), not liking a certain teacher (there could be differences in discipline that need to be discussed in a parent-teacher conference). Digging deeper into what's happening with your child whenever you sense stress in their life is critical. Having a discussion with your child about his feelings and experiences in uncomfortable situations can lead to effective solutions and to the bodily discomforts dissipating.

When a child expresses physical or emotional discomfort and is repeatedly met with frustration or disapproval, he or she soon learns that it isn't safe or acceptable to feel. The child gets the message loud and clear--your body isn't reliable--and begins to adapt and conform to misguided demands and expectations. The cost to the child is tremendous; both spontaneous self-expression and the simple joy of being are rapidly lost.

About Steve Sisgold:
Steve Sisgold is the author of "What's Your Body Telling You? Listening to your Body's Signals to Stop Anxiety, Erase Self-Doubt, and Achieve True Wellness." For more information on his work and upcoming seminars in the Bay Area, visit onedream.com.