The dangerous things that parents don’t know they’re doing that may contribute to eating disorder development

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 in the eating disorder community that parents often inadvertently support their children’s eating disorder behavior simply because they are unaware of the following dangerous behaviors.

Trying to control body size

Whether you call it “dieting” or living a “healthy lifestyle,” 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.

Assume all teens are “awful”

There is a pervasive narrative in our culture that all teens are “awful,” “unruly” and downright terrible. While it is definitely true that teenagers are biologically driven to differentiate from their parents during adolescence, and can, therefore, present many challenges during this time, that does not mean that they are inherently difficult.

When people say (from birth) things like “Oh, just wait until she’s a teenager – you’re in trouble!” or “She will pay you back when she’s a teenager,” they think they are making a joke, when in fact they are priming you to expect the worst from the person you love the most – your own child. Yes, adolescents are challenging, but they are still our children.

The key to managing the adolescent years is not in ignoring the child or putting her into a category of “bad” that you just need to get through. Instead, you just need to realize that your parenting during this phase needs to change dramatically.

If you approach parenting a teen in the same way you have parented your child so far, or in the way you hope to parent your child in the future, you will struggle, and your child will suffer. For more about teenagers, check out Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager.

Fail to teach emotional literacy

Eating disorders are processing disorders. They are behaviors that we become addicted to as a way to manage our emotional dysregulation. 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.

Ginny Jones is the editor of She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

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