As eating disorders and other disordered methods of processing emotions become more prevalent, we must look collectively at our cultural norms and rules that may be contributing to these disorders. Although no disorder is ever a parent’s fault, and parents alone cannot prevent all eating disorders, we do have tremendous opportunity to prevent and heal our children from eating disorders by actively rejecting some of the parenting myths that subconsciously drive our behavior. When we reject these rules, we raise healthier children who are less likely to endure difficult maladaptive coping disorders such as eating disorders.
Myth 1: there are good and bad foods
There is a lot of noise right now about “superfoods.” Every week, a new superfood is announced, and the media breathlessly reports on what makes it so incredibly amazing. At the same time, sugar is our current villain, and parents are told to restrict and carefully monitor sugar to save their children from a lifetime of illness and certain early death.
While it is true that unprocessed foods plus fruits and vegetables are a good choice for all bodies, we don’t need to obsess about any particular food. Parents who want to avoid eating disorders in their households are careful not to label foods as good or bad.
Yes, we can discuss balancing the diet for better energy, digestion and overall health, but demonizing or restricting, or focusing exclusively on certain types of calories over others serves only to cause anxiety around food. Actively ignore the constant barrage of food rules, and help your child eat intuitively in response to bodily cravings and responses.
Myth 2: I need to lose my “mom/dad body”
Just as we pass on our noses and fingernails, we can pass along body dissatisfaction. Disliking and tearing apart our bodies with the idea of fixing them is a cultural obsession that is absolutely linked to eating disorders.
This is why one of the most important things we can do as we think about how to prevent eating disorders is to dismantle and actively overcome our own body hatred. Our children are listening when we groan and complain about our bellies, thighs and other body parts. Our children are watching when we limit our dinner to a salad.
We must learn to accept our bodies as they are in the world. This takes serious work, because we have been raised in a culture that believes the natural body is something to be wrangled and dieted into submission.
Please learn the facts on dieting:
- 95% of successful dieters regain all lost weight plus more within 2 years of beginning a diet.
- Diets add tremendous amounts of stress (cortisol) to our bodies, and stress is more strongly correlated than body weight with every disease that we are supposedly curing with dieting.
- Diets are directly correlated to eating disorders – people who have never dieted are extremely unlikely to develop an eating disorder.
Myth 3: childhood obesity must be stopped (by us)
There are endless societal messages about the dangers of a larger body size. Parents worry that if they don’t control our kids’ weight, we are setting them up for a lifetime of illness. In this environment, it can be very scary to have a child who is at a higher body weight.
Pediatricians carefully track our kids’ weight from birth, and mention at every appointment where our kids fall compared to the “normal” line. Most of the time, if our kids begin at the top of the weight scale, they continue along that trajectory. We mistakenly believe that it is our goal as parents to bring our kids’ weight down to the so-called “normal” line on the chart through food restriction and enforced activity.
However, this is based on the assumption that body weight can and should be controlled. There is a lot of research around why our society is experiencing higher body weights, and it cannot be solely attributed to individual behavior. The fact that we have incredible access to highly-processed and highly-palatable food like never before in human history is the largest factor in our body size – not our individual eating patterns.
But despite the fact that our environment has changed dramatically, we are still clinging to a very old, deeply flawed weight “ideal” based on Body Mass Index (BMI). This index has been soundly disproven, yet it causes most of us endless hours of pain and suffering.
The “fact” that obesity CAUSES disease is actually not a fact. Additionally, we currently have no safe and effective method for reducing body weight. Until these vital discrepancies are addressed, parents should not focus on their kids’ body weight and instead focus on health factors that we can influence: sleep, nutrition, joyful movement, and emotional hygiene.
BMI (body mass index), which is based on the height and weight of a person, is an inaccurate measure of body fat content and does not take into account muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, and racial and sex differences, say researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.
Myth 4: crying, yelling and other signs of emotional distress are bad
We are deeply distressed when our children are upset. This makes sense when they are infants, because crying and yelling before speech is a sign of a need for food, attention or a simple diaper change.
But as our children gain access to language and are no longer dependent on us for their every need, we begin to resent their cries and yells because they seem to indicate some lack in our parenting. As a result, we try to soothe our children as quickly as possible, either with kind words (it’s OK, it’s OK), food (have a lollipop), punishment (take a time out), or mean words (stop being a baby!).
These parental responses to our kids’ distress are all culturally approved, and yet still deeply flawed. Once our kids develop more complex feelings and language, our job switches from solving their problem (with milk, burping and clean diapers) to helping them learn to handle their problems emotionally.
Emotional hygiene becomes our most important job as parents, and this involves teaching our kids that emotions exist and are something to be experienced, not ignored. This is critically important in preventing eating disorders because a person develops an eating disorder as an alternative to healthy emotional hygiene.
Emotional maturity demands that we recognize that feelings come and go. We understand that feelings of anger and sadness, envy and greed, and the full range of emotions are all completely normal and not to be feared. When we learn to process our emotions in a healthy way, we are not driven to seek alternative emotional processing through food behaviors.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. 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.