Parents often ask me what they can do to make sure their child doesn’t develop an eating disorder when they “grow up.” It’s a difficult question to answer, but one that deserves to be explored. As parents (or nannies/caretakers/role models) there are lots of things we do that influence how our children see their relationship to their bodies and to food. I am going to list some of the bigger ones below, but before I do I want to say that even if you do all of these things “perfectly” (if there is such a thing in parenting!), sometimes things still happen that could cause your child to turn to an eating disorder to cope. Even when we try our hardest, there are some things that can be out of our control. If you find yourself in this situation, get your child help as soon as possible. The sooner these things are caught and worked on, the quicker the recovery.
Now back to what you can do to help set your kids up for success when it comes to food and their bodies:
- Model Healthy Behavior: I don’t know about you but I have had many times as an aunt and a nanny where I have said things, thinking nobody is around, only to have the child repeat it at the most inappropriate moment. The point is, kids notice what you say and do – and they also notice what you don’t say or do. If you are someone who is always on diets and you talk about it out loud in their presence, they will likely learn that diets are something they should be on when they are older. Children are like sponges, they soak up everything around them so be aware of what messages you are conveying in your house. Abandon diets and start looking towards incorporating hea
lthy food choices into your meal plans instead. Model that food is nourishing and helps keep us strong and have everyone sit down and eat together so that food becomes a ritual for when you connect as a family. Model healthy behavior around food and your children will pick up on it.
- Watch What You Say: If you use a lot of “fat” talk in your house, your children will learn that the best way to talk about their bodies is with criticism and disgust. If they learn that their body is how they receive praise and love (ex. “Jenny you look so pretty and skinny in that outfit”), they will likely continue to see their worth through their bodies and vice versa. Don’t talk about weight, or scales or diets. Instead talk about how great they are because they are kind people, emphasize their strengths and remind them that they are worthy and loved on a regular basis.
- Teach Your Children About Emotions: Eating disorders aren’t really about food. While food often comes about as the presenting issue, people with eating disorders are often experiencing emotional distress but aren’t sure how to healthily express their emotions or how to effectively process them. The more you give permission for your children to feel how they feel, the less they will learn to bottle it up. For example, a common one that I hear about is “boys don’t cry, toughen up” which teaches boys that feeling sad or hurt isn’t acceptable. When this feeling bubbles up the person doesn’t know how to deal with it so they find some other way to cope. Emotions are a part of our life, and whether we want to have them or not, they are going to be there. Try to remember that all emotions are healthy. It takes a lot more courage to feel our feelings then to block them, and by doing so you teach your children healthy ways to express themselves instead of toxic coping mechanisms. The more you help your child understand what he or she is feeling and normalize it, the better.
Parents want to protect their children from experiencing any pain in their lives. One of the ways to do that is to show them just how worthy they are because they are wonderful individuals. Learn about and model healthy behaviors. It may require starting a whole new journey to self-healing for yourself but I promise you, loving yourself just as you are is one of the best things you can teach your kids.