Eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental health disorders. Living and practicing in Los Angeles, I work on a daily basis with many driven parents whose lives are dedicated to providing their children with the best chance of having of successful life. These parents enroll their children from a very young age in as many classes as possible, in the hope of giving them lives that the parents themselves never had.
One of my close friends told me of her concern that her two-year-old daughter might not get into the preschool where my friend and her husband were hoping to enroll her. My friend was blaming herself for not having put her daughter’s name down early enough. Her daughter now was placed on a waiting list.
My friend was worried that she had ruined her daughter’s life, because graduates from that pre-school have a high rate of acceptance to Stanford. Many parents are really dedicated to their child’s professional future; however, they often lose sight of what is most important for the long-term well-being of their children.
Eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental health disorders. Individuals who are diagnosed with eating disorders have a five times greater chance of dying compared to the normative population; however, fostering a positive self-image is not a primary focus for many parents.
In most cases, eating disorders hinder one’s success in various areas of life, including emotional, employment, and social aspects. I have worked with many intelligent women who were not able to reach their potential due to the severity of their eating disorder symptoms. They spent the majority of their productive years in and out of inpatient treatment, which prevented them from developing the career path they always dreamed of. Feeling paralyzed by their eating disorders, they often have very limited social relationships.
Although parents are not the reason that adolescents develop eating disorders, they can play an essential role in fostering a protective environment to safeguard their children from developing these disorders. From an early age, our children are exposed to impossible beauty standards that can make them feel ashamed of their weight and shape. They learn that no matter how hard they try, they will never become “thin enough,” “perfect enough,” and “good enough”
The video below captures part of the extensive media campaign that our children are exposed to from an early age:
As a parent, you have a crucial role to play in helping your children develop a healthy sense of self. There are certain actions that you can take in order in order to give your children the best chance of becoming resilient against the body shaming messages that they will receive from media and their peers. Below are some of the recommendations that I offer in my counseling practice to parents who wish to foster positive self-image in their children:
- Do not discuss your own weight concerns in front of your children. Children often take their parents as role models, and they tend to mirror their parents’ eating habits and lifestyles.
- Talk to your children about your family history of eating disorders. Eating disorders are hereditary diseases. According to various studies, eating disorders are eight times more common in people who have relatives with an eating disorder. Talking to your children about your family history of this disorder will help them to be more mindful of behaviors and eating patterns that would place them at risk for developing an eating disorder.
- Instead of categorizing food as bad and good, foster an environment at home that encourages your family members to focus on moderation, not restriction, and teach the skills require for mindful eating.
- Do not praise your children with food. Many parents make the mistake of giving sweets to their children to reinforce their positive behaviors. Instead, acknowledge positive behaviors by showing physical affection and using verbal commands.
- Teach your children effective coping mechanisms to manage their moods. Eating disorders are often distractions from psychological pain; eating is one of the few coping mechanisms that almost everyone learns in early childhood. Coping strategies are like tools, and the more tools you have in your toolbox the more prepared you are to face adversity in your life.
There are several elements that influence one’s development of eating disorders, such as genes, trauma, temperament, peer relationships, media and families. Occasionally I counsel families where, in spite of the parents’ best efforts to foster a healthy self-image in their children, a child develops an eating disorder.
Relationships are like currency. If you have invested in your relationship with your daughter or son in early life, this will help you to identify the early signs of eating disorder in them, which can lead to early intervention. Early intervention is key for beating an eating disorder. Teens who get treatment within the first three years of the onset of their eating disorder symptoms often have the best prognosis.