Many women (and men) who have struggled with an eating disorder worry their children may be more prone to developing the condition. Research shows that heredity does play a role in anorexia nervosa and that genetic factors may influence the likelihood of developing other eating disorders. But there is no single cause, and elements from psychology to family environment and society at large are all factors.
The good news is that because you have personally gone through this struggle, you are more likely to notice the early signs and symptoms that others might overlook. In fact, if you're recovered, you're also more likely to have a healthy relationship with your body and a more balanced relationship with food. This will help buffer your child from external messages and cultivate healthy self-esteem.
We know that kids – especially girls – face great pressure from an early age to watch what they eat, no matter what their family history with eating disorders.
- More than 40 percent of girls in first through third grade want to be thinner.
- More than half of 9- to 10-year-old girls feel better about themselves when they are dieting.
- An estimated 11 percent of high school students have been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
- Almost one-third of teenage boys engage in unhealthy and dangerous behaviors to control their weight and the size of their body. This includes skipping meals, refusing to eat, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
What parents can do
Be a role model.
Send your children healthy messages about food and bodies. Children pay attention to everything you do. If you are critical of yourself and your body, they will believe that is appropriate. But if you are loving and accepting of yourself and your body, they will learn that this is appropriate. Avoid judging or talking negatively about your body (or anyone else's). Mention the things you like about yourself and your body. Work toward creating an atmosphere of acceptance.
Ditch food rules.
Avoid diets and try not to categorize foods as "good" or "bad." Don't teach children to compensate for having dessert by saying you will just have a salad so you can order dessert, for example. Instead, focus on balance and moderation when eating all kinds of foods – including treats.
Raise critical thinkers.
The average American is exposed to more than 3,000 advertising messages every day. Talk to your child about what she sees. Look at advertisements together and ask her what she thinks the advertisers' message is. Ask your child how these messages make her feel and if she agrees with them. Explain that most photographs are airbrushed, and it's ok to enjoy these photos as long as she realizes they aren't accurate representations of real people.
Be a buffer.
Provide alternatives to the negative messages that your child will inevitably receive out in the world. Help her focus on other ways to feel good about herself, such as taking pride in being a caring person and a good friend. Praising your child for who she is as a person reinforces these values and helps to build a strong internal sense of self – one that won't be measured by the size and shape of her body.
Common signs and symptoms of eating disorders include:
• Extreme shifts in weight
• Using bathroom frequently after meals (to purge)
• No longer menstruating
• Distorted body image
• Significant body dissatisfaction
• Obsession with food, weight, and body image
• Intense fear of gaining weight
• Preoccupation with food and exercise
• Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable
• Increased isolation
• Mood swings
• Depression, anger, or anxiety
• Low tolerance for frustration
• All-or-nothing thinking (believing nothing is good enough unless it's perfect)
If you are concerned about your child's relationship to food or her body:
Trust your instincts. You know your child. If you think something feels "off," you're probably right. She may not have crossed the line into disordered eating, but you are more acutely aware of the early signs because you've been there.
Talk to your child. Open the conversation by sharing what you notice and what concerns you. Approaching this issue sensitively, compassionately, and without judgment shows your child that you can be there for her in a safe way.
Get support. Reach out to a professional for support and guidance. The National Eating Disorder Association and the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center are two trusted resources that can help you find support in your area.
Finally, if you feel you need to address some of these issues for yourself, or if you find yourself becoming overly concerned with what your child eats or how her body looks, it might be useful for you to consult with a professional as well.