Almost every mother’s Facebook feed has at least one article every day about the food we should or should not feed ourselves and our children. But focusing on the food we keep in our pantries is a misdirection of our job description as mothers. The food that goes in our children’s bodies is far less important than the other forms of nourishment we should be investing in on their behalf.
As a woman who is in recovery from an eating disorder, I have learned very important lessons about what food can and cannot do for my body. Yes, I need food to keep my body healthy, but my eating disorder told me that I should also turn to food and food restriction to gain control, to be worthy of love, and to soothe my emotional states. My eating disorder lied to me; food accomplishes none of these tasks.
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. No mother is solely responsible for the development of an eating disorder. And still, a mother does influence her child’s emotional health, and a mother can make changes at almost any time in her child’s life that will improve her child’s emotional health. A mother who polices every bite her child eats may unintentionally spark rebellion and disordered eating. A mother who puts her emphasis on her child’s emotional nourishment may encourage whole-hearted living in which her child becomes free of eating issues and numbing behaviors.
Here are three ways that eating disorders attempt to nourish our children, and how we, as mothers, can help our kids learn emotional nourishment.
Eating or restricting food are ways that someone who has an eating disorder attempts to gain control over a life that feels out of control. When emotions overwhelm us, we look to food to numb our feelings, or we restrict food to show our emotions that we have the upper hand.
Mothers can teach their children that there are many healthy ways to gain control in life that don’t involve food. We can learn emotional vocabulary, and talk about how we feel. We can learn to move our bodies gently and lovingly to help metabolize emotions. We can seek comfort and affection from people who love us.
All of these actions may be harder than eating a box of cookies or refusing to touch food, but they accomplish the goal of gaining control even better than eating or restricting food, and without the negative consequences of an eating disorder.
Be worthy of love
It is virtually impossible for our children to avoid the overt and covert messages in our society that to be thin is to be worthy of love. Thin, fit people are applauded in our society, while fat people are derided as disgusting. As our children grow, they internalize these messages, and when they hit a crisis of unlovability (and we all do at some point), they decide to solve their love problem by trying to control the size of their body.
Mothers can talk to their children frequently and explicitly about love being size-neutral. We can teach our children to open their eyes and take note of the vast array of body sizes in the world and remind our children that they are lovable for who they are, not the size of their bodies.
This is a tenacious undercurrent that permeates almost every aspect of our lives so it will take consistent action on our parts to disrupt society’s programming. We owe it to our children to teach them of their worthiness no matter what size their body is.
Soothe emotional states
All humans feel varying emotional states throughout every single day. For someone who is susceptible to an eating disorder, the junk food of psychological regulation is food or food restriction. Whenever our emotional state becomes triggered, we turn to food or food restriction. Sad? Angry? Anxious? Moody? Instead of reaching for healthy emotional regulation tools, we reach for food or food restriction.
If we are bulimic, we binge and purge to numb our emotional states. If we are anorexic, we turn to our food logs, scales and exercise logs to reassure ourselves that we’re “fine – just fine.” Mothers can help their children learn emotional hygiene and even emotional first aid to better handle emotional mood states.
A mother can say: “Do you feel sad? Lie down and feel it in your body. Accept your sadness. I’m here for you. You can get through sadness. It will pass. Let’s let the sadness in and see where we are in five minutes.” A mother can say: “Are you angry? anxious? moody? You can handle all of those emotional states, my love. You don’t need to overcome them with food or obsessive logging.” And, importantly, a mother can sit there with her child during emotional turmoil, providing reassurance, acceptance, and timekeeping.
Over time, our children will begin to see how fleeting most feelings are. They will also learn to mother themselves through future emotional upheavals. We don’t need to worry that our children will never learn to modulate their own emotions – most will, as long as we provide them with a strong model.
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.