Can I Prevent My Child From Developing an Eating Disorder?
As parents, we hope the best for our children: from their education, to their physical health, relationships, and mental well-being, we want them to be secure and confident in who they are and thrive in every aspect of their lives.
Eating disorders in childhood can feel like a daunting thing, one that I know parents would want to avoid at all costs. More children are struggling with eating disorders today and parents that I work with want to know, “What can I do to prevent my child from having an eating disorder?”
Childhood Eating Disorder Prevention
To better answer this question, it may be helpful to first learn more about the nature of eating disorders. Eating disorders are often misunderstood to be conditions that are an obsession with body size or weight loss, but this could not be further from the truth.
Research has found that there are many risk factors that may influence the development of an eating disorder. While the media and our thin-obsessed culture certainly do play a part, this alone is not the only trigger for an eating disorder. Other factors, like a person’s genetic makeup, the way their brain is structured, and other environmental factors can all play a role in how an eating disorder develops.
It is often said that biology loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger. What this means is that some kids are born with physical factors that may make them more susceptible to developing an eating disorder; things that are not in our control, like their genetics, certain character traits or the way their brain functions and processes information.
A child prone to an eating disorder may be triggered by environmental factors, which can be any combination of things, like:
Unintentional weight loss
High pressure to achieve
Exposure to dieting
Family history of dieting
The reality is that many factors will work together to trigger the development of an eating disorder - there is not a single factor we can pinpoint as the cause of eating disorders. As parents, this can be hard to grasp because it means accepting that some things will be out of our control.
So what can we do to help our children when it comes to eating disorder prevention?
The good news is that there are many ways we create a safe, nurturing environment for our children that supports them in having a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.
We can help create a sturdy foundation from which they can navigate the different challenges they may face.
Support Your Child to Have a Healthy Relationship with Food
In order to raise a child who is confident in their ability to eat, empowered to be an intuitive eater, and resistant to dieting culture, we, as parents, can do the following things:
Be the Role Model: Yes, it may sound cliche or even redundant, but it’s the truth. If your child observes you dieting or engaging in unhealthy food behaviors, this will impact how they view food and their bodies and can encourage them to follow in the same way. Ask yourself - would you want your child to mimic the way you eat or feel about your body? If not, give yourself some grace and connect to the help you need to heal yourself first!
Ban the Diet: Dieting behaviors, like putting certain foods off-limits, have become normalized as a way to be “healthy”. In fact, these types of eating habits can actually cause more harm than good. Research has shown that dieting results in a higher risk of disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, lower self-esteem, and poor mental health. If anyone in your household is actively dieting or restricting certain foods or food groups, this can negatively affect your child. Dieting can also be triggering for more problematic eating behaviors. Help your child by banning dieting from your home.
Body Diversity: The mainstream media promotes the lie that a thin-body is the only body type that is desirable. In reality, every child, adolescent, and adult will develop a body type that is right for them, and bottom line: There is NO wrong way to have a body. The more we can teach this to our children, the greater impact we can have in helping them build a positive body image. Kids who grow up to be confident in how their body is built become resilient to the message that they have to change their body to meet a standard that is unrealistic.
Behaviors that are Health-Promoting: Health involves more than just the food we eat, and raising a healthy child involves more than limiting “junk food”. There are many other aspects of our health, including our relationships and social life, our intellect and spirituality, our mental well-being, how we sleep, the way we move our bodies, and how we manage stress. As parents, we can help our child live healthy lives by taking a holistic approach that integrates the whole family. Helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food starts with positive feeding interactions between you and your child, building self-esteem, and being role models of overall health.
Parents Are Not to Blame
An eating disorder diagnosis in your child, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, can feel devastating. As parents, we are quick to blame ourselves for anything our children may be struggling with. When it comes to eating disorders, self-blame does little in the way of helping your child find healing and recovery. For some parents who have had a history of an eating disorder, they may also fear the same thing happening in their own child. Whether your child is struggling with an eating disorder or you are looking for ways to help prevent these conditions from occurring, know that there are many ways you can support your child. By being the role model for a healthy relationship with food, you can create the nurturing environment your child needs to have to encourage a positive outlook on food and eating.