When your child has an eating disorder, it’s time to critically evaluate what you do and what you need to stop doing. No parent is ever responsible for a child’s eating disorder. However, the disorder found life in the family ecosystem. Thus there is good reason to consider the environmental conditions that may have contributed to its development.
Parents are never to blame. But parents who carefully evaluate their child’s ecosystem can be of tremendous help during recovery.
In this article I will review the three “sacred cows” that most of us live with in our culture. These sacred cows are natural and normal. However, they are also the things we should stop doing when a child has an eating disorder.
A sacred cow is an idea, custom or institution believed to be above criticism. Sacred cows are firmly believed to be absolutely and factually correct, but they do not stand up to critical evaluation. Overcoming sacred cows requires practice. Even when we know intellectually they are false or even harmful, our unconscious beliefs may still exist.
Here are three sacred cows that families need to stop perpetuating when a child has an eating disorder:
Sacred Cow 1: Thin is better
We live in a culture that believes 500% that being thin is good, and fat is bad. Thin people are believed to be in better physical health, of higher intelligence, and, of course, more attractive. This sacred cow goes so deep that it can feel overwhelming to topple it. But we must in order to heal from our eating disorders. The facts are that:
People who live in thinner bodies are not actually healthier just because they have less adipose tissue.
Many people who live in larger bodies are physically healthier and live longer than people who are living in thinner bodies. Neither body type is better than the other from a health standpoint.
In fact the greatest risk to someone in a larger body is not their adipose tissue but weight stigma. If this statement is making you feel deeply confused, it’s because it’s a sacred cow.
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People who live in larger bodies are not less intelligent, but they are believed to be less intelligent based on the fact that everyone “knows” that all it takes to lose weight is to take in fewer calories than you put out.
This is deeply believed yet completely false. Weight loss and maintaining a low body weight is not simply a matter of intelligence and willpower.
Body weight is programmed genetically and environmentally. We have very little control over it.
Not everyone is capable of losing weight and maintaining a thin body. And people who don’t lose weight are not less intelligent than those who live in smaller bodies.
People who live in larger bodies are not less attractive than those who live in thinner bodies.
How do we know this? Because there is no single standard for human beauty.
Beauty standards are societally-driven based on the preferences popularized by those in power. In our society, the beauty, fashion and health industries push the thin ideal everywhere we go.
As a result, we have internalized the belief that being thin is more beautiful. But, just like all sacred cows, you can dismantle this one.
Spend some time learning about fatphobia and feminism. We can learn to see all bodies as uniquely beautiful, regardless of their size. We just need to drop the social construct that thin = beautiful.
Sacred Cow 2: A child’s body weight is the parent’s responsibility
Many parents believe that their child’s body is a reflection of their parenting.
This damaging belief begins at the first visit with the pediatrician. When our children are just hours old, the doctor mentions the child’s height to weight ratio. This begins a lifetime study of a body’s weight.
When a child “fails to thrive,” parents feel guilty. When a child gains weight “too rapidly,” parents feel guilty.
This system innately links our child’s body weight to our abilities as parents. Every single pediatrician visit begins with a height/weight analysis and questions about the child’s eating patterns.
Even parents who have children who fall directly on the “average” line of weight receive comments about maintaining weight. The assumption is that weight is within our control.
But this belief that parents should monitor their child’s weight and keep it low on the scale is a sacred cow.
Bodies are naturally diverse, and the more parents mess with their kid’s weight, in the form of diets, criticism, and teasing, the more likely their kids are to have problems with weight as adults.
That’s right. Parents who obsess over kids’ weight are more likely to have larger-bodied kids. This is because typically the only influence we have on our kids’ weight is negative.
That does not mean parents don’t influence healthy behaviors.
A child’s body weight is not the parent’s responsibility. It is up to a complex interaction of genetics and environment. However, parents can take responsibility for creating a healthy environment. By not focusing on weight you are not ignoring health; you are simply recognizing that focusing on weight is usually not healthy.
Instead, parents can focus on modifiable behaviors such as sleep, play, stress management, and intuitive eating.
Parents are responsible for offering their kids a healthy selection of foods. We are responsible for helping our children notice how food makes their bodies feel. We are responsible for never labeling foods “good” or “bad,” which can lead kids to binge eat when given access to “bad” foods.
When children are fed in this way they become natural, intuitive eaters who balance out their diets for optimal nutrition based on their individual bodies. For more about feeding kids, please visit the Ellen Satter Institute.
Sacred Cow 3: Good parenting is natural
The sacred cow that good parenting is natural, or that love is all you need to raise a child well, needs to be thoroughly toppled.
Good parenting is often not natural.
Most of the reason for this is that none of us is born with a knowledge of psychology, brain development, and the other critical skills that are necessary to parent well.
Most of us were also parented imperfectly. Therefore we should carefully evaluate what we think is “right” before automatically assuming it is healthy.
Great parents spend time thinking critically about parenting. They make constant adjustments based on how their kids react to their parenting.
They read articles, pursue training, and get coaching to help them dismantle their assumptions. They learn to exchange sacred cows for compassionate parenting approaches.
It doesn’t matter how much you love your child – love is not enough.
All of us make mistakes, and many times we hurt the people we love simply because we don’t realize that while having love for our children is natural and automatic, giving love appropriately is a conscious, intentional action.
Giving love takes practice and patience, and we must adjust our love-giving for each child and each circumstance. If this sounds exhausting, it can be sometimes, but it is also absolutely what our kids need from us.
Check your sacred cows
Parenting a child with an eating disorder is not easy. That’s why now is the perfect time to check your sacred cows about parenting and learn some new skills.
There are things we can stop doing that will help our children who have an eating disorder.
It’s never too late to become a better parent. And our children have tremendous capacity to accept a parent who learns new parenting skills.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to help their kids recover from eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health conditions. She’s the founder of More-Love.org, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents who have kids with mental health issues.
Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.