If you’re a parent with a history of an eating disorder, you may struggle with fear that your child will also develop an unhealthy relationship with food and their body. Eating disorders do have a genetic component; thus, a child whose parent has a history of an eating disorder has a higher risk of developing the disorder. However, genetics are not the sole determinant or whether one will develop an eating disorder, and someone who has a parent who has struggled with one may not necessarily develop symptoms. However, an environment or influences of disordered eating can be very impactful on one’s development of this condition, particularly if the genetic susceptibility is already in place.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you are familiar with how painful and all-consuming this disorder can be – subsequently, the thought of your child developing this terrifies you. That being said, how can you prevent your child’s development of an eating disorder? Here are some suggestions to consider.
Realize that you can’t.
You can just do whatever is in your control to make sure your child has a healthy relationship with food and their body. Tons of other factors can play into their disorder, whether external peer and social media influences and issues with emotional dysregulation. You can’t guarantee that your child will never develop an eating disorder or some type of dysfunctional relationship with food, but you can create an atmosphere that’s more likely to help them have a healthy relationship, and know the signs that could alert you that a problem might be impending.
One important way to reduce your child’s risk is to treat your own eating disorder, if this is something you are still battling. Obviously, this is easier said than done. However, making any active effort to combat your eating disorder sends the message to your child that an eating disorder is not something you want to carry and takes away the glamorization of certain eating disorders that occurs in the media. Set a positive example for your child by taking care of yourself by healing your body and mental health. Depending on your child’s age and stage of development, you could even be open about your struggle and how you are trying to get better. Explain to them that they may have a genetic vulnerability and that you will help them take steps to make sure their relationship with food is healthy. Let them know that you are there to support them if they are experiencing challenges with eating or body dissatisfaction. If you are struggling with your own recovery or are active in your disordered behaviors, make sure your child has positive role models who exhibit a healthy relationship with food and body image. A nutritionist or therapist could be great for guidance.
Avoid body shaming.
Be mindful of how you talk about bodies, whether your own, your child’s, or that of anyone around you. Create a body positive atmosphere by sending the message that any body, no matter the shape, size, health or ability status, is valuable – that no body is better than another. Most importantly, do not body shame your child. Even complimenting their body size or weight can send the message that any changes in their body would be unacceptable. Body shaming can become internalized and a significant influence on your child’s development of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Focus on complimenting your child’s inherent internal characteristics – their kindness, talent, sense of humor, etc. -rather than external characteristics. If they do bring focus to their body, remind them of all the amazing functional characteristics of their body – strength, mobility, giving and receiving hugs, etc. Focus on function rather than form. Moreover, be mindful of how you talk about you own body. If your child does bring up their own body dissatisfaction, you could share your own experience with this and how you coped in a healthy way. Not only will this help your child but also your own recovery. Moreover, teach your child how to be media literate so they know the unrealistic expectations of bodies in society and that diet culture is based on marketing and making money off people’s body dissatisfaction.
Ditch the diets.
Be mindful of what and how you’re eating – Are you restricting? Do you avoid certain food groups? Be careful not to label foods as “good” or “bad” – allow your children to eat what they enjoy while ensuring that they are also incorporating foods that will be their fuel. Teach your child how to be present with food – incorporate mindful eating by encouraging your children to enjoy and experience food with all of their senses. Help them get in tune with their hunger signals by checking in with their hunger and fullness throughout the day.
Teach healthy emotional regulation.
The underlying component of eating disorders is emotional dysregulation, whether this arises from a mood disorder, trauma, or external stressors. Teaching your children adaptive coping skills will provide them with a toolbox of strategies to help them deal with tough feelings. Stress the importance of being open and honest with others about their feelings, exercising, practicing meditation, and engaging in hobbies. Set an example by demonstrating your own adaptive coping skills when you feel distressed. If you think your child is struggling and needs professional help, you may consider having them meet with a therapist or seeking therapy together.
Maintain an open dialogue with your children. Ask them how they’re feeling without judgment. Let them know you are there for them, and explain to them they you can take care of your own feelings and that they don’t need to put on a brave face for you. Don’t try to fix their feelings but allow them to experience them and acknowledge that feeling sadness, anger, anxiety, or any other distress is okay. If you notice any disordered eating tendencies (binging, over exercising, cutting out food groups), drastic weight fluctuations, changes in mood, or a preoccupation with their weight, ask them questions that do not focus on their body or eating habits, but address what they are experiencing emotionally.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates Virtual Body Image Groups for adults and adolescents with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are experiencing body image distress or any other psychological turmoil related to a chronic illness, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment.