For Parents Who Worry About Eating Disordered Children

Eating disorders aren't caused by parents but here's how parents can help.

Posted Jan 21, 2015

As a physician specializing in eating disorders, I see many young women who first learned to dislike their bodies or learned to diet from women in their families, including their mothers.  When I speak with mothers about this, I usually advise a number of things:

1.        Recognize that your daughters and sons learn from watching what you do, not what you say.  If you express body dissatisfaction ("aren't my thighs huge" or "I wish I was skinny like you") in front of your children (because boys can develop disordered eating as well) or if they see you dieting or not eating, the message they get will be that dieting is what women should do and that it's normal to hate your body.

2.        Some parents in an attempt to focus on healthy eating can go overboard.  Examples of this include forbidding children to eat certain types of foods or telling them that if they eat (candy or pasta or whatever their "fear" food is) they will get fat.  The best way to teach good nutrition is of course modeling it by eating healthy without modeling restrictive eating.  So, most nutritionists suggest that we all eat a wide variety of foods and that we not tell kids that foods are either "good" or "bad."  To teach your child about nutrition, learn facts about nutrition and teach them rather than labeling food as good or bad.  For example, carrots are a good source of vitamin A which helps with your vision.  

3.        Many parents are very concerned about childhood obesity and messages about how to prevent and treat this are very confusing.  There are some important things parents can do to help with this.  Firstly, recognize that your children have your DNA.  Therefore, if you have obesity in the family, it's possible (but not inevitable) your child may struggle with their weight.  So, start them out early by being active AS A FAMILY, rather than putting the focus on your child and trying to make them exercise.  Also, eating meals together as a family is one of the most important activities you can do to prevent disordered eating and obesity.

4.        Don't put all your focus on your child's appearance.  Help build up their self-esteem by acknowledging them for other qualities they have or other things they excel in.  Comment on their school performance or their musical prowess.  Never compare one of your children with another one, especially regarding their appearance.  If you are worried that one of your daughters weighs more than another, you have to take into account that though they may be in the same family, they have different genetic makeups.  As well, children's bodies are constantly changing and growing.  Many children look heavy before puberty and then they get taller and are thin.  You cannot judge a child as being too heavy unless they are significantly obese.

Above all else, it's best to make sure your child knows that you care about them as a person, not just about their weight or appearance.