Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship With Eating

How parents can protect their kids from toxic messages about food and eating.

Posted Jun 15, 2020

This post uses research evidence to point out three steps parents can take to help their child build a healthy relationship with eating.

I'd like to provide two caveats before we begin. First, we are a product of our nature and our nurture; it's impossible to quantify the level of genetic and biological predisposition one might have towards disordered eating attitudes or behaviors. And second, children are not spun glass—in fact, they can be very resilient! The Academy for Eating Disorders states in their position paper on the role of the family in eating disorders: "Whereas family factors can play a role in the genesis and maintenance of eating disorders, current knowledge refutes the idea that they are either the exclusive or even the primary mechanisms that underlie risk" [5]. With this in mind, let's dive into what parents can do to help their kids develop a healthy relationship with eating.

Avoid Body Appearance Teasing

"But it's just good-natured teasing, she knows I don't mean it!"

Maybe. Maybe not. The answer may depend on personality characteristics and the age of the target. Remember, children are still exploring how to separate fantasy from reality and the complexities of human communication such as which statements to believe and which to dismiss as attempts at humor. And, while this may be an over-generalization, most teasing is built on a kernel of truth. In fact, parental comments about body appearance can have long-lasting effects.

In a sample of almost 400 middle school girls, 23% reported that they had been teased about their appearance by a parent (19% by father; 13% by mother, with overlap) and 29% reported that they had been teased by a sibling. Researchers found that parental teasing was associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction, depression, and food intake restriction, along with an increased tendency to compare oneself to others. And, girls who were teased about their body by a sibling were significantly more likely to have low self-esteem and higher levels of body dissatisfaction, food intake restriction, bulimic behaviors, and depression. But here's the kicker: girls who were teased by their father were more likely to be teased by a sibling as well—suggesting that parental modeling of teasing may be a brutal one-two punch for adolescent girls with siblings [4].

Lead by Example

It's cute to see a little kid who tries to follow in their mom's or dad's footsteps, maybe clomping around in mom's heels or putting on dad's tie—but what happens when they start mimicking the behaviors we're not so proud of? When it comes to eating behaviors, research suggests it's important to practice what you preach.

Children of parents who attempt to exert a high level of control over their child's snack choices tend to consume higher levels of both healthy and unhealthy foods—indicating, perhaps, that snacking behavior is enacted out of rebellion. And, children of parents who used food to shape their child's behavior had significantly lower levels of satisfaction with their own bodies—suggesting that using food as a reward or punishment carries an intrinsic message about the child's self-worth [1].

As your child approaches adolescence, it may be wise to examine your eating attitudes and behaviors in an effort to determine what messages about food you'd like to share or avoid sharing with your child. The authors of the above study conclude that parental modeling is likely a better method than attempting to exert control for improving child dietary behaviors.

In simplest terms, if you want little Jack to eat his broccoli, don't be tempted to incentivize him with dessert—just eat your own broccoli and wait it out!

Minimize Conflict and Critique

Much has been written on the complex, intertwined subsystems that shape an overall family dynamic. And logically, the larger the family, the more complex the overall system is. A previous post explored the links between parent-parent dynamics and parent-child dynamics. So, it would be foolish to oversimplify complex family relationships such that we make the claim that any one variable X conclusively predicts outcome Y.

Correlational research is like taking a snapshot of a dance routine. Some information can be gleaned, but conclusions about what came before or after the image are made with assumptions. Still, the image can be informative.

Research has shown that disordered eating attitudes are linked to higher levels of family conflict in a large sample of 6th and 7th graders. Furthermore, students who felt higher levels of psychological control from their mothers were more likely to display disordered eating attitudes as well [2]. Maternal psychological control was measured with questions like "My mother is always trying to change how I think or feel about things" and "My mother blames me for other family members’ problems,’’ in addition to other items. In another study, children who reported feeling criticized by their parents (measured by answering questions like "When you and your [mother/father] spend time talking or doing things together, how often does your [mother/father] criticize you or your ideas?") were more likely to report eating disorder symptoms [3].

There's no question that opinions vary when it comes to the nuances of how, when, where, why, or what we should eat. But hopefully, parents across a wide spectrum of beliefs about food can unite in agreement that children should experience eating as a positive daily activity free of shame, guilt, or regret. Based on research evidence, avoiding body-image teasing, leading by example, and minimizing family conflict and criticism are three straightforward steps parents should be able to take to reach this goal.

If your child shows signs of an emotionally painful relationship with food, please reach out to a qualified mental health professional in your area.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory

References

Brown, R., Ogden, J. (2004) Children’s eating attitudes and behaviour: a study of the modelling and control theories of parental influence, Health Education Research, Volume 19, Issue 3, 1 pg. 261–271, https://doi.org/10.1093/her/cyg040

Cance, J. D., Loukas, A., & Talley, A. E. (2015). The differential associations of internalizing symptoms and family and school relationships with disordered eating attitudes among early adolescents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(1), 41-56. doi:10.1177/0265407514523551

Hochgraf, A. K., Kahn, R. E., & Kim-Spoon, J. (2017). The moderating role of emotional reactivity in the link between parental hostility and eating disorder symptoms in early adolescence. Eating Disorders, 25(5), 420–435.

Keery, H., Boutelle, K., van den Berg, P., & Thompson, J. K. (2005). The impact of appearance-related teasing by family members. The Journal of Adolescent Health: Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 37(2), 120-127. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2004.08.015

le Grange, D., Lock, J., Loeb, K., & Nicholls, D. (2010;2009;). Academy for eating disorders position paper: The role of the family in eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 43(1), 1-5. doi:10.1002/eat.20751