Eating Disorders in Children
With the recent attention to “thinspo,” and extreme measures to control children’s weight (which I talk about here), I am resurrecting this post from the archives with some updates.
This was originally in response to the article, Children with Eating Disorders: Are Parents to Blame? which appeared in the Huffington Post. I’ve included the link in case you want to read the article first.
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 too 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.
I’ve offered a series for parents on this blog to help parents understand their role, how much influence they have and steps they can take to prevent an eating disorder in their child.
Where Eating Disorders Come From
There is a genetic predisposition for the development of an eating disorder–it runs in families, and twin/sibling studies show greater incidence.
There is an environmental influence that may trigger or influence the development of eating disorders in susceptible children–media messages, dieting, etc.
There is a gene-environment correlation that lends itself to eating disorders–the idea that children carry the genetic potential (loaded gun) and the environment “pulls the trigger.”
An example of this would be the parent who had an eating disorder and still outwardly struggles with food, eating and body image.
The Environment: Where You Have Influence
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, such as school and friendships.
The Environment Forms Attitudes, Beliefs and Practices
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.
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).
Keep Working On Your Food and Body Issues
If you struggle with eating, your own body image or your weight–work on it. If not for yourself, for your child.
Be mindful of what you say and do–these daily habits seep into your child’s psyche and mold their attitudes, beliefs and habits around eating, body image and food.
Don’t Be Overcome By Fear
I know 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) and those are some big shoes to fill.
Meanwhile, our society doesn’t prepare 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 (aka “thinspo”) and “healthy” mantra, leaving parents to struggle with how to get their kids there.
While we expect great things from parents, 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 (that would be too simplistic), parents are part of the puzzle—and if you don’t assemble all the pieces of the puzzle, you never get the complete picture.
Do you struggle with raising kids amidst food, eating and body image challenges? Or have you been successful in managing your own challenges?
Share your experiences and what worked for you here or on the Fearless Feeding community.
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: April 18, 2012
Updated on: January 10, 2019