a mother breastfeeding a child to demonstrate art therapy and eating disorders

Decoding the language of eating disorders through art and metaphor

When our children develop eating disorders, we must understand that they are struggling with issues much deeper than food and their bodies. And yet the way they eat (or don’t eat) may be a critical clue to help us understand how we can help.

The very first way in which we care for our children is through feeding. When our children are in utero, their mother effortlessly nourishes them directly – body to body. Once born, our children seek the milk produced in our bodies and take it from our own bodies into their own. In this way, our children are directly connected to their mothers and completely dependent upon them for nourishment.

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Once weaned, our children still rely on their parents for nourishment. As young children, they cannot separate the giving of food from the giving of comfort and love. They do not separate their bodily needs from their emotional needs. Both the food and attention we provide are vital to their growth and survival.

When viewed through this lens, it may not be so surprising that in today’s culture, we often see eating disorders arise during the period in life (adolescence) when we tend to ask our children to feed themselves.

As they arrive at about ten years old, we pull back on preparing and serving food. Busy schedules compete with sit-down family meals. Our children are independent enough to buy food at school, make their own lunches, and grab food from the pantry. We gain tremendous freedom when we no longer need to personally feed them 4-5 times per day.

A perceived loss

But is it possible that our children perceive this independence as a loss of parental nourishment? Is it possible that sometimes an eating disorder is the child’s way to ask for more care and attention? Because while it’s perfectly reasonable for us to pull back on feeding duties, some of us may forget that providing emotional nourishment is more important than ever.

Through no fault of our own, is it possible that our children are still linking being fed with being loved? If we divorce ourselves from the deeply symbolic and metaphoric meaning of food, then we may miss the signs that our children still need our parenting in ways that we thought they had outgrown.

The culture of belonging

Beyond basic life, eating habits and rituals are inextricably linked to culture and society. They are at the root of our belonging. When we eat together, forces deep in our psyche conspire to foster feelings of togetherness, belonging and companionship. Eating with others is inherently soothing to the human brain. When our child rejects the social norms around eating, it may be a sign that she is feeling isolated, alone and rejected.

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There are three requirements for life: food, water, and oxygen. When our child begins to misuse one of these requirements, it may be a sign that life itself is not going smoothly for her*. This does not mean that we have done anything wrong as parents, but it may mean that something is wrong and we can make adjustments in our behavior to nourish our child in the ways that she needs.

Food and eating are never simple or black and white. When our child changes her food and eating behaviors, it may be a sign that there are things we can do as parents to regroup and hold our child closer. It may be a sign that our child needs us in a fundamental, deep way that cannot be expressed in words, but that she is expressing in food and eating behaviors.

When we listen to our child and think of food’s symbolism and metaphor, we are better able to support her in healing.

What eating behaviors might say if they could speak

We must look beneath the stated food rules or exhibited food behavior to find out what our child may be trying to communicate. Remember that these are just ideas – each child has her own relationship with food, eating, and nourishment. But those of us in recovery from an eating disorder can often find our words reflected below.

I won’t eat. I reject your care.

I eat too much. I can’t get enough care.

I’m afraid of food. I’m afraid of life.

I’m too fat. I’m not lovable.

I need to be thinner. I don’t accept myself.

I won’t eat animals. I feel voiceless, powerless, and mistreated.

I won’t eat gluten/processed foods/sugar. I need to feel pure.

I only eat healthy food. I need to feel good.

I eat in secret. My needs are shameful.

I overexercise. I deserve punishment.

I purge. I don’t deserve to have my needs met.

I eat to the point of discomfort. I deserve pain.

I steal food. I don’t deserve to be nourished.

I won’t eat in public. I do not belong.

I cheated. I am a failure.

Whatever food behaviors our children exhibit may provide an opportunity to see more deeply into their hearts and deepest desires. It is only when we accept their needs that we are able to provide the care that only parents are capable of giving.


*Eating disorders impact both females and males. The English language does not make it easy to write in a manner that acknowledges this fact. Therefore, for this article, we have chosen to write using female pronouns. Please be advised that this advice pertains equally to females and males.

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