Sometimes parents accidentally contribute to their child’s eating disorder – it’s never on purpose, and it’s not the sole cause. But since parental behavior does have an impact on a child’s eating disorder, it’s helpful to take a look. It helps if parents understand how their behavior can impact a child’s eating disorder. This way they may reduce problematic actions and learn new skills that will support recovery.
Parents are never to blame for a child’s eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex behaviors that encompass nature and nurture. However, there is no doubt that parents can inadvertently contribute to their children’s eating disorder behavior. This can happen simply because they are unaware of the following dangerous behaviors.
1. Trying to control body size
Most people call it living a “healthy lifestyle.” But if you are restricting your food intake and/or exercising for the purposes of losing weight, then you are, in fact, dieting. Dieting is a violation of the body’s natural size, shape, and nutritional needs. Almost every woman living in today’s society, and an increasing number of men are firmly on the spectrum of eating disorders based on their desire to control their body size and shape.
Most people in our society today speak openly about the weight they are trying to lose and the diet they have adopted. Again, even if it’s under the disguise of a “healthy lifestyle,” your kids know that the reason you have changed your eating and/or exercise behavior is to change the size and shape of your body.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with pursuing a truly healthy lifestyle that includes joyful movement and enjoying a broad spectrum of foods that make your body feel good. What is wrong is doing those things to change your body’s natural composition. For more information about the dangers of dieting, check out Dr. Linda Bacon’s Body Manifesto.
Also, if you are personally controlling your body, there’s a good chance that you are also suggesting that your child is in charge of their body weight. This is a common fallacy that perpetuates and amplifies diet culture through generations. Freedom from eating disorders requires that we free ourselves from weight restriction. This can feel alarming for parents who have devoted their lives to maintaining a certain appearance, but it’s important to your child’s recovery that you consider how your assumptions about body weight are impacting your child.
2. Assume that your child is the problem
Eating disorders are based on four inter-related factors. A complex combination of individual, family, social, and treatment factors come together in a perfect storm to create an eating disorder. And yet our society and many treatments assume the problem lies within the person who has the eating disorder.
When we blame the individual for their eating disorder, we’re missing the fact that they are complex disorders that do not exist in a vacuum.
In fact, we live in a pro-eating disorder society. Diet culture promotes eating disorder behaviors, and yet when someone develops an eating disorder, we assume the individual is “broken” or somehow flawed. Even if you as a parent were not focused on your own and/or your child’s weight when they were growing up, they will still absorb cultural messages about diet culture.
Your child is not the sole problem. This is a very good thing, because it means there is a lot that you can do as a parent to help them recover!
3. Not understanding emotional healthcare
Eating disorders have physical behaviors, but they are mental disorders. This means the key to recovery lies in emotional health. Few parents are trained to provide emotional healthcare to children. In fact, most parents are advised against providing much of the emotional care that can be protective against eating disorders.
One of the most important things parents can do is talk with their children often about emotions and feelings.
This includes building an emotional vocabulary that enables your child to define feelings freely and accurately. It also means practicing the expression of feelings regularly. Very few of us can do this naturally and without guidance because emotional expression is deeply ingrained as a bad behavior in our society. To help your child, you must first overcome your own desire to keep emotional expression under wraps.
Just as we can’t teach our children to read unless we are able to read ourselves, we must become adept at expressing our feelings in order to help our children express theirs. This practice is hugely helpful for all of us, and you may discover that the entire family heals when they learn emotional expression tools. For more about emotional expression, check out Dr. Guy Winch’s TED Talk about psychological hygiene and emotional first aid.
If you want to learn more about how you can help your child recover, please reach out for parent coaching. I’d be glad to help!
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the editor of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.