Concerned about your child's eating or weight? You CAN help!
You see your child turning to food when upset or stressed. You catch your teen looking excessively in the mirror, critiquing and analyzing at every angle. At the yearly check-up, the pediatrician shows you and your child the growth chart and cautions against the weight gain, meaning well but often triggering humiliation and shame. These are all-too-common scenarios for parents of children and teens, indeed starting younger and younger.
Parents often have, or have had, their own eating and weight issues, sometimes even their own eating disorder histories, and struggle with how to help their child. Fear and panic can set in, out of a desire to protect their child and help them avoid a life-long battle with food and weight and/or avoid being the victim of bullying or weight-shaming. It is from this place where things can inadvertently go wrong. Starting your child on a diet, signing them up for a weight loss program or even subtly sending your child messages that there is something wrong with their bodies, or that food is the enemy, can launch an increased risk for developing an eating disorder, disordered eating and/or significant body image issues.
While there are multiple contributing factors to the development of eating disorders and negative body image, there are very few that can be controlled. One of these is how parents approach these concerns. With a greater understanding of some key ways that parents can approach these issues, they are in a unique position to actually help, rather than potentially contribute to the problem.
First, parents must not under-estimate the power of role-modeling. Your child sees and hears you and takes in your attitudes and behaviors around food and weight. Innocent comments about how many calories you’ve eaten that day or “been bad” with food or “cheated”, or "feeling fat” send messages to your child about food and bodies as things to be judged and altered. Parents need to check their own beliefs, attitudes and behaviors around food and weight and consider if their own “stuff” is being passed on to their children.
Second, out of an intention to have a healthy home environment and instill a nutritious, healthy diet in their children, parents sometimes keep only “healthy” or “clean” or “nutritious” food in their homes. Children are restricted from “junk”, “treat”, or “bad” foods and are inadvertently set up for a tendency to sneak or hide them when possible, including at friends’ homes or social events. Children get the message that there are “good foods” vs “bad foods” and this again assigns judgment to food and therefore to themselves when they eat them or don’t eat them. This judgment leads to shame.
Third, you or your child may use food for emotional reasons, setting up a potential for your child to develop a pattern of turning to food in times of stress, anxiety, sadness, happiness, or even just boredom and loneliness. What can a parent do? Attend to the emotion in your child. What does this mean? It means looking for opportunities to connect with your child, allowing freedom of expression of all sorts of emotions, making space for the negatives ones as well as the positive, naming them and reflecting back by really putting yourself in your child’s shoes during these times and validating their experience, even if you don’t quite understand or agree. This will go a long way towards your child feeling more secure, connected, understood and calm, which will reduce the need to turn to other substances or behaviors, including eating, to deal with their emotions.
Fourth, parents may want to consider asking healthcare providers not to discuss weight with their child during appointments or to be thoughtful about how it is discussed. Of course with obesity on the rise and concerns about the associated health consequences, there is validity to concerns regarding weight however a focus on health regardless of weight/size is a more useful and less harmful approach. One option is to reach out to the doctor ahead of time to request that any weight concerns are discussed with you separately. It is also a concern if a child is losing significant weight, dropping off his/her growth chart curves, or not gaining weight during a period of growth in height. Either way, be sensitive to the potential impact it can have when a doctor or other healthcare provider mentions weight gain or BMI with a child/adolescent, or even when positive feedback is given regarding weight loss. It is sometimes one of the many contributing factors to a child’s negative body image and overall self-worth, tying it inappropriately to weight.
Parents often feel helpless when their child has eating and weight concerns but they CAN help and are in a unique position to do so. Remember:
· Avoid comments about your own weight, body, calories and food intake. Certainly avoid commenting on your child’s weight and shape. Model balanced and regulated eating patterns, including a full range of foods including desserts.
· Stock your kitchen with this full range of food! Discourage diet mentality and embrace an “all foods fit” approach. Encourage flexibility around food rather than rigidity.
· Intentionally acknowledge and validate your child’s emotions. Look for opportunities to connect and seek to create them.
· Be aware of the potential impact of weight discussions during health appointments. Encourage a focus on overall health vs weight.
If you find yourself struggling with the suggestions above and/or if you are concerned that your child may be developing an eating disorder or that body image issues are interfering in his/her life, consider seeking support and guidance from a therapist who specializes in eating disorders, disordered eating, and body image. I specialize in these areas and welcome you to reach out!