Children are emotional sponges. They pick up on everything we do even when we don’t realize we are doing it. Like it or not, our children idolize us. They want to please us and imitation is the most sincere form of flattery right? Unfortunately, children are unable to differentiate our healthy and positive behaviors from the self-destructive. So what exactly do we do to help perpetuate eating disorders?
Be critical and abusive. There is a tremendous amount of research on the connection between trauma and eating disorders. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse creates a lack of safety and lack of control in our lives. Food becomes one of the only elements of life we can control. In many ways emotional abuse is more subtle. When we don’t give our children positive feedback and only pay attention to areas in which they fall short, they will grow up feeling like they are not good enough. Food becomes a comfort and never failing friend.
Encourage perfectionism. Expect straight As. Expect perfect behavior. Expect them to never make mistakes. When we consistently give children the message that falling short of perfection equals failure, they will never feel successful. When they see us verbally berate ourselves when we make mistakes, they learn by our example that it is unacceptable to fall short of perfection. When feeling out of control emotionally, it is easy to turn to an eating disorder and use food as a means for emotional control.
Withhold emotionally. When you are not emotionally present with your children, they pick up on this and don’t form a secure attachment. When children don’t form secure attachments to us, fears of abandonment can lead to self-destructive behaviors like eating disorders. When we have our own emotional issues, we are unable to be emotionally present in our relationships. Particularly if you have issues like depression or substance abuse, you cannot be present in your relationships. Getting the help you need now will ultimately lead to a healthier future for your children.
Nurture your own eating disorder. Your own dissatisfaction with your body has a HUGE impact on your children, particularly your young daughters. The more you discuss how much you dislike your body, the more your child will start to question theirs. It is likely that their shape bears some resemblance to yours, so it would be easy for them to question their own looks. Constantly dieting and talking about foods you should and shouldn’t eat will help to build the foundation for an unhealthy relationship with food. Addressing your relationship with food will help your children to form a healthier relationship with it as well.
Use food for rewards and punishments. Using food to soothe an upset child automatically sets up a conditioned response for emotional eating. The same could be said for using food as a reward. Withholding food as a punishment teaches children that they must always be in control of their food because their control may be taken away at any time.
Ultimately, we are not the cause of the issues our children might develop, but we can heavily influence their future. If you have a child who has developed an eating disorder, this is in no way an attempt to point the finger at you and call you a bad parent. There are many factors outside of our control that contribute to eating disordered behavior, like genetic predisposition. The biological component is huge, but in the words of Cynthia Bulik, “Genes load the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.” My intent is to illustrate ways we unconsciously impact our children. This is true of parents, but it is also true of aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers and coaches. Any adult who interacts with children impacts them. My hope is that we will all be more aware and by addressing our own issues, help our children to become happy and healthy adults.