Frequently I read articles of interest and make a mental note; occasionally I respond with an opinion. Recently I came across this article about the parent role in eating disorders, posted by a colleague from the Eating Disorders Coalition of Tennessee.
It seems that when it comes to eating disorders, there is a need to understand where it came from: what caused it and who is to blame. Those of us who work with these patients know all to well that a myriad of mixed factors create the perfect storm (family environment, peer pressure, child temperament, genetics, media, community, and the list goes on)—the development of an eating disorder. In some respects, the development of child obesity is subject to the same questioning, rendering the search for someone or something to blame.
We’ve offered a series for parents on The Nourished Child, to help parents understand their role, how much influence they have and steps they can take to prevent an eating disorder in their child.
Below is my response to the article, Children with Eating Disorders: Are Parents to Blame? which appeared in the Huffington Post recently. I’ve included the link in case you want to read the article first.
Here’s What I Think:
The environment a parent creates is the environment a child grows up in. This includes what kids eat, how they view food and their body, as well as how they deal with problems. As you know, research shows when it comes to food, and attitudes about food and eating, parents are the strongest influence over a child, even in the face of growing outside influencers. If a parent diets, a child is more likely to diet; if a parent struggles with weight, a child is more likely to struggle with weight; and if a parent has a poor or negative relationship with food or his/her body, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. This is the unspoken (or maybe spoken) environment a child is growing in.
While parental influence becomes diluted as a child ages, parents still wield a powerful influence, more than other outside factors. So how can we not assess the role of the parent and the environment created by the parent in the evolution of an eating disorder?
This is not to say a parent causes an eating disorder, but the environment and the interactions in that environment form the child’s attitudes, beliefs and actions around food and eating (as well as other lifestyle behaviors). Even if a parent feels afraid or powerless to address eating disorder suspicions or concerns for their child, isn’t that a contribution to the development of the disorder in and of itself?
I feel a great empathy for parents in today’s world—there is a lot of pressure to be a great parent, to raise smart achievers, and bring up healthy, great eaters who are at a healthy body weight (oh, and with no hang-ups about food)—those are some big shoes to fill.
Meanwhile, our society does a very poor job of preparing parents for the job of parenthood, especially with regard to feeding kids (and I am not just talking about food here—but how to interact around feeding and food, what to say and how to answer and approach nutrition questions/concerns, why kids behave the way they do around food, and so on).
Our society also perseverates the thin ideal and “healthy” mantra, leaving parents to struggle with how to get their kids there.
We expect great things from parents but we give them few tools; and parents are trying to achieve more and more in the world everyday, which takes away from their time to connect and interact with their kids.
While I don’t think it is useful to blame parents, parents are part of the puzzle—and if you don’t assemble all the pieces of the puzzle, you never get the complete picture.
What do you think about this?