Being the parent of a child with eating or body image struggles is incredibly difficult. I hear parents say things like, “Did I cause this?” and “We did everything right… I don’t know why they’re like this”. Often parents feel helpless or frustrated that their little one can’t see the amazing things in themselves that they as parents (and me as the clinician) can see.
Additionally, parents have had a bad and misrepresented history of carrying full blame for their children’s struggles. However, instead of seeing parents as “the ones to blame”, I see parents as being their child’s biggest ally in healing and PREVENTING an eating disorder. PREVENTION is less costly and more effective than waiting for a child to show symptoms.
Let’s talk about specific ways you can prevent eating disorders and body struggles with your kiddos:
1. Consider your own relationship to your body and food. Do you love your body? Are you obsessing over weight or struggling to find balance with food? Dr. Dan Siegel, a famous parenting author, is famous for saying, “We can only give to our children what we give to ourselves.” For this reason it is imperative that you work on your own relationship with food and your body. Work with a therapist, take a yoga class, and filter media that enforces the belief of “never good enough”.
2. Don’t overly focus on or talk about food, bodies, or weight. Don’t make comments about others’ body size (even if they are framed positively, i.e. “She’s so thin!”). Don’t make disparaging comments about your own body. Children learn from what we do and how we treat ourselves and others.
3. Don’t keep a scale at home. Scales can encourage an over-emphasis on weight and weight obsession.
4. When your child makes major changes in their diet, ask them questions about WHY they are making these changes. Are they doing it “to be like other girls/boys in their class” or are they doing it for other more positive/neutral reasons?
5. Educate your child on how the media distorts images and over-emphasizes appearance as equaling happiness. Use learning moments to discuss how people are “so much more” than what they look like. Because we absolutely are!
6. Help your child tune into their own body signals. Don’t make them finish their plate if they tell you they are full and let them eat more if they are still hungry. Don’t jump on the bandwagon of the “clean plate club.”
7. Don’t suggest that “losing weight” or “dieting” is a solution to your child’s anxiety, depression, or lack of motivation. Instead, work to have more discussions around these topics and seek professional help if they are feeling stuck in their depression or anxiety.
8. Seek an assessment if your child is beginning to make negative comments about their body, has made distinct changes in their diet (i.e. “going vegan”), has marked changes in their attitude around meal times, or is engaging in dieting or diet talk. It never hurts to assess and work on the negative attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs BEFORE it leads to something more serious.
Sidenote: Seeing teens for just a few sessions to work on prevention and self-esteem is far less costly that treating an eating disorder for several months to several years.
Here’s to wishing you all a healthy, happy relationship to food and your own body and helping your kiddo do the same!