This is perhaps a pressing question on the minds of many a concerned parent who are all too aware of the increasing prevalence of child and adolescence eating disorders. Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes, but unfortunately the complexity of eating disorders – with biological, psychological and sociological underpinnings – means that no manual will ensure that a child does not develop the illness. However, according to Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Kenneth L. Weiner, although no parental strategy will guarantee a psychologically healthy child, parental influence is not to be under-recognized.
In general parents need to bear in mind that their values, actions, and attitudes, are unable to cause eating disorders and body image disorders in their children. It is our experience at Life Works that parents of eating disordered children often feel weighed down with guilt in the face of their child’s illness. While guilt in some respects reflects a sympathetic willingness to own their part in this devastating disease, guilt is toxic and potentially detrimental to the supportive role that parents are urged to undertake as part of recovery. Parental support in the treatment of eating disorders is invaluable and it is therefore useful to move from a state of guilt to a sense of understanding and openness to change.
Parents can, however, help their children cultivate a healthy relationship with food and body image, by being positive role models. Professor Weiner emphases two critical strategies which are particularly useful in safeguarding children and adolescents against the development of an eating disorder;
Focus on who your child is, not on their accomplishments
A common feature in people suffering with eating disorders is a struggle with a positive sense of self despite a high level of external success. It might be useful for parents to focus on who the child is rather than what they have achieved and how they look, thereby promoting a healthy and sound sense of self. By fostering a family culture in which emphasis is put on content rather than on exterior presentation, it is more likely a child will be able to withstand many of the societal pressures to conform to a certain weight and size as a way of feeling valued.
Never introduce your child to diets
Studies repeatedly find that children of parents that diet and have poor body image grow up with similar difficulties around body image and dieting. Whilst obesity is a growing concern in children and adolescents, putting your child on a diet might inadvertently increase the risk of the child developing an eating disorder. As Professor Weiner puts it, when children go on a diet ‘it’ll almost always activate the latent genetic predisposition that sets them up to have an eating disorder’.
Dieting is not the answer. Those that already struggle with weight issues might already use food as a way of coping. Importantly, eating disorders are never really about food. Teenage eating disorder recovery is thus designed to include the family of origin. Although people with eating disorders isolate as part of their illness, an eating disorders is never developed in isolation.