Happy Thanksgiving! I had the joy of sneaking down to Florida for 3 days a few weeks ago to spend time with one of my oldest friends. We became friends when I was two and she was three and despite her moving to Florida when I was just eleven, we have managed to stay connected and continue our friendship over the years. She now has a 4 and 1 year old and after putting them to bed one night, she confessed feeling anxious around how she was going to raise them to have a healthy relationship with food, their bodies and themselves. Raising little ones is hard, it is sad to think that at that age these thoughts are already crossing her mind. The reality is I don’t think there is a specific approach that will prevent someone from developing an eating disorder. If you are a parent however, there are a few things that will always be beneficial to instill in your child. *For the purposes of this post I am going to use the pronoun she but this applies to all genders equally.
- Allow All Foods To Be Safe: As an adult you get to choose how you nourish your body. If you choose to follow a certain dietary lifestyle (for example, gluten free, paleo, vegan, keto etc), that is absolutely okay. What I think is important, however, is to not instill fear around certain foods. For example, we don’t want to teach kids that all grains are bad, or that animal products are bad etc. I think as soon as we start talking in terms of good and bad with food, we can instill fear and judgment that a child will likely only interpret from an anxious place. For example, if a child hears that eating gluten is bad (assuming they aren’t celiac), then she may feel like a bad person for having chosen that food. Instead, create a curious relationship with your child around food. Encourage them to eat a balanced meal while reinforcing that all food groups are important because of how they help our bodies feel strong enough to play and our minds focused enough to learn.
- Focus On Internal Strengths: So often we compliment children first and foremost on how they look. While I am not here to say you should never do that, I think instead you want to focus on reinforcing their internal strengths and qualities that have to do with them as a person and not on their looks. For example, focus on your child’s creativity, courage, sense of humor, kindness, or brains. All kids like to be praised and celebrated. Encouraging these attributes allows them to see that it is who they are as a person that makes you love them the most. We want children and people in general to realize that their heart is what is most important.
- Love Them For Their Flaws: As much as eating disorders manifest about food, that really is only one piece of the complex puzzle. So much of eating disorders are about dealing with painful feelings that the individual doesn’t know how to process or experience in a healthy way and so they take their emotions out on food and their bodies. Every single person makes mistakes and is flawed. I think one of the most important things you can do as a parent is celebrate these learning opportunities and talk about them. When humans know that they can still be loved despite being flawed, genuine healing can begin. In contrast, if they believe they are only really loved if they are perfect or because they engage in life only in ways you as the parent deem acceptable, they will become anxious and start to shut down. Allow your child to be who she is while still setting healthy boundaries around safety. If they step outside of the box, focus on loving them anyways and asking them how they are feeling. I know it can be exhausting being a parent but if we give children the opportunity to be human, they learn that they can be safe and okay even in their flaws.
I genuinely believe that parents do they best they can with what they have and know. I also genuinely believe it is the hardest job out there. These three pieces are merely suggestions in case you are at the stage where you are wondering what you can do to help your child feel as confident in their relationship with food and themselves as possible. Try to remember that Parents don’t cause eating disorders so please show yourself as much love as you would show your child.