We live in a fat-phobic society, and I understand when parents tell me they want to protect their children from getting fat, but sometimes it seems like parents think that their main goal is to control their child’s weight when that is actually very dangerous.
I totally get that it’s hard to have a child who is heavier than the norm. I know that parents are under tremendous pressure today, and want to try to help their children succeed in all ways, including weight.
But while there are a lot of reasons for eating disorders, one thing we see consistently is that body shame usually precedes eating disorder behavior. It is a very good idea for parents to avoid trying to control their children’s bodies at any age.
These are some of the things I tell parents who are concerned about their children’s weight:
Genetics drive body size
Something you should think about really early on is the genetics in your family. If you are in a larger body, if your partner is in a larger body, if all of your relatives are in larger bodies, then it is very likely that your children will be in larger bodies. And that’s not something for you to control – that’s just your child’s genetic body type. While we’re on the topic of genetics, it’s important, regardless of where your child falls on the spectrum, never to compare siblings or relatives bodies or eating habits.
Don’t restrict food
The fact is that the more you restrict your child’s eating, the more likely they are to fight back, either by eating more or less than you think they should. I can tell you that when people feel at a young age that there are a lot of food limitations, they often feel that they want to binge more as they gain independence in life.
Talk about food
Talk about food preferences, satiety, and hunger. Talk to kids about what satiety and hunger feel like by talking. Talk about good feelings after eating, like “that was so delicious, my stomach feels so good right now, that was exactly what I wanted to eat.” This demonstrates that food is nourishing, not a reward or punishment. Don’t say things like “I feel so disgusting, I can’t believe I ate that.” Or “I’m going to have to work that off in the gym later.” Enjoy your food and help your children learn to enjoy their food. When they truly feel nourished by food, there is no need to use food against themselves.
Allow food preferences
Respect your children’s individual preferences. In addition to the fact that most of us get naturally more adventurous with age, each of us also has food preferences – foods we naturally and persistently like and dislike. Encourage children to recognize and honor their own preferences. Show that you trust your child and your child’s body even when it wants different things than yours does.
Work on yourself
Parents need to be aware of their own issues. You have to be aware of your own body and how you feel about your own body. Kids notice everything. They notice when you pull your shirt out because you feel fat. They know when you are dieting, even if you think you’re hiding it from them. You can’t shield your child from your own eating habits, so it’s important that you work on your own body relationship.
Puberty usually means weight gain
Talk to your children about what will happen to their bodies during puberty. Nobody talks about the very natural fact that most healthy bodies get rounder during pre-adolescence and adolescence. Reassure them that if they don’t fiddle with it, it will even out and end up being exactly where it’s meant to be.
Fat is not a feeling
The minute a kid says something like “I feel fat,” which can start when they are very young, ask them what they are really trying to say. Often it is actually I feel scared, I feel lonely, I feel out of control. Fat is not a feeling. What is your child really trying to tell you?
Take a look at the society we live in, particularly the negative body images in the media. Talk to your children and let them know that natural bodies are perfectly acceptable, and there is no need for us to feel that we must live up to the airbrushed perfection presented to us.
We live in a very disturbed society around food and body. And I’m afraid that I don’t see that going away. I think we just have to accept it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to help our children survive the worst of it. I believe all parents have a lot of opportunities to learn more about how to help our kids feel good about their bodies.
Beth Mayer, LICSW, has been working in the eating disorders field for 34 years. She has been the Executive Director of MEDA for 15 years. She is nationally recognized for her clinical work with eating disorders and has spoken at conferences around the country. In addition to eating disorders, Beth specializes in treating adolescents and families. Beth has served as an adjunct professor at Simmons College, Boston University, Boston College, Lesley University and Salem State College, supervising MSW and LMHC graduate student interns. She is currently the co-chair of the NEDA network and serves on many local and national committees. Beth holds a B.S. in Clinical Psychology from Quinnipiac University and a Master of Social Work Degree from Boston College.