Throughout my years as an eating disorder therapist, I’ve learned that people with an eating disorder can’t pinpoint when their eating disorder started.
Eating disorders don’t have a “start” point because they are basically like a storm brewing until a trigger hits. Then once that trigger hits, the eating disorder manifestation is a slow, insidious, and subtle process.
Most of the women I see aren’t aware there is a problem until they are months, if not years, into the disorder.
What I ask instead is when is the first time you remember thinking about food, your body, or someone else’s body?
For most of the brave people sitting across from me, they can easily recall a time in early childhood when they first became aware of food, weight, and body.
The stories are often heartbreaking- focused on watching their beautiful mother lamented over her body and food, having parents strictly monitor their food intake while a thinner sibling is allowed total food freedom, hearing a doctor comment on their BMI or weight gain as they hit puberty, or a grandmother pinching a portion of their body at a visit.
I’ve heard stories of nutrition class at school or even a visit to the dentist creating fear around food. Stories of coaches shaming kids for their athletic ability and a supposed connection to their weight.
Most of these stories happen in late elementary and early middle school years.
It’s the beginning of the end for many of my clients. It’s the beginning of the end of body trust and food freedom.
There’s a slew of research from the 90’s to back up the idea that our kids are becoming increasingly focused on weight and food. If that was true 20 years ago, imagine how much more our kids are dealing with it now.
The problem with this hyper-focus on food and weight is that it doesn’t lead to healthy behaviors and attitudes around food and body for our kiddos.
It leads to anxiety, depression, weight obsession and weight cycling, food restriction, binge eating, social isolation, mood swings, withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, and medical issues. Long-term it can lead to disordered eating and an eating disorder.
From the stories I’ve heard, most of them aren’t from malicious parents, grandparents, school teachers, coaches, or doctors that want my clients to eventually develop an eating disorder. The comments and guidance is often well-intentioned, but mis-informed.
How to Help Your Kids Have a Healthy Relationship with Food and Their Body
Do Your Own Work
It starts with you, mama. We model for our kids more than we’ll ever fully know. They watch us. They absorb our energy.
In so many ways it is critical that we are not asking our kids to do things we aren’t willing to do ourselves.
One of the most confusing things for my adolescent clients is when their mom is begging them to eat according to their meal plan while dieting and restricting her own food. It’s frustrating and confusing.
It’s important that our kids and teens have moms who are willing to look at their own relationship with food and their body.
On a more general note- our kids crave authenticity from us.
We don’t have to be perfect, thank goodness. But our kids crave authenticity with us- whether that’s being honest that we’re having a bad day, we’re upset (with them or someone else), or that we struggle in an area of our life, they want the real us.
If you’re interested in living a diet-free, intuitive eating life I encourage you to explore working with an Intuitive Eating, Health at Every Size informed dietitian and/or therapist. And check out my professional resources page.
Talk with Your Kids
As you do your work and learn about a new model for holistic health, make sure to share what you’re learning with your kids.
They need a different language than the diet culture chatter all around us.
Give them a new idea around food and their body. Even if you aren’t sure about what you’re learning, you can share it with your kids. Frame things in a way that will peak their curiosity along with yours.
I have a friend that has been learning about Intuitive Eating and practicing the principles over the past few years. While she’s had her own questions and push backs and “ah-ha” moments, she’s shared them with her teen daughter and preteen son. It’s been such a neat thing to hear their conversation and see the gift she unknowingly offers them in this diet culture, food obsessed, weight obsessed world.
How To Help Your Child If You Suspect an Eating Disorder
Know the Signs
The National Eating Disorder Association has a great list on their website of warning signs and symptoms for a variety of eating disorders. It’s helpful to know those signs so you can recognize any changes in your child.
My colleagues and friends Sara Upson and Celeste Smith created this checklist, which I’ll share 5000 times, to help people see problematic attitudes and behaviors.
It can be hard to differentiate because a lot of eating disorder attitudes and behaviors are actually praised in our culture. 😩
Early intervention and treatment is key!
If you suspect any issues, make sure to have a conversation with your child. Be open and share your concern- make sure to use language that shows you are with your child and want to help, you don’t desire to attack them.
Get them appropriate care! Find an eating disorder trained dietitian and therapist team to work with your child, you, and your family.
Not all therapists and dietitians are trained in eating disorders and fully understand the complexity and seriousness of an eating disorder, so be sure to find someone who gets it!
Don’t Be the Food and Body Police
One natural tendency is that parents want to help their child control their food intake, their weight, and their exercise routines.
If you notice yourself wanting to make your child eat more or less food, if you want them to diet, or if you want them to exercise differently, notice it but don’t engage. Even in the name of health, please don’t put these attitudes and behaviors on your child.
These are diet culture driven attitudes and behaviors and are not about your child’s actual health. It’s diet culture’s version of health.
Health is teaching your kids food neutrality so they don’t binge on sweets or cokes or chips. Health is letting your child feel the joyful movement their good body has to offer. Health is knowing that weight gain is not a total indicator of health and weight gain and fluctuations are normal throughout life.
Try not to monitor and comment on their food choices, body size, weight, or exercise.
Watch comments about your own food choices, body size, weight and exercise!
As if parenting isn’t hard enough, we have a really layered and complex task when it comes to helping our children have a healthy relationship with their body, mind and soul in this diet-culture driven world.
It’s not impossible, though! It takes intentional work on our part, but there is hope for our kids as we help them learn a new way to relate with food and their good bodies.
What concerns do you have for your child? What ways do you see your child struggling?