Many experts and researchers have found that children, teenagers and adolescents who have been diagnosed with eating disorders are heavily influenced by their parents’ words and actions. Since early childhood, we look up to our parents for advice and we mimic many of their words and actions subconsciously. Although there are multitudes of underlying factors that are known to cause eating disorders, parents have a large influence on how their children act around food and how they view food and body image. Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Mayo Clinic stated in an article that “moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image, even if a mom says to a daughter, You look so beautiful, but I am so fat, it can be detrimental”. Although parents do not mean to harm their children, they have a huge impact on their child’s confidence as they grow into a teenager and mature into an adult.
- Using “fat” as an insult
The word “fat” already carries a negative connotation since it usually is used to describe a person who is heavier, in a negative light. Many adults use will link the term “fat” to other negative qualities such as poor work ethic and lack of discipline, when in fact, body shape and size has nothing to do with these qualities. Using the term “fat” in any form, especially a negative form; can result in children becoming not only obsessed about their own body image but can also teach children to judge others strictly by their size and weight
- Telling children what and when to eat
Many parents have rules on when kids are able to eat. Children may only be allowed to eat at mealtime and allowed have late-night snacks or snack before dinner. Additionally many parents control “what” their children can eat which can result in children avoiding certain foods or labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad”. Children have amazing set points in their brains that alert them when they are hungry and full. If you child is hungry before dinner, it is okay to allow them to eat a small nutritious snack to hold them over and the same goes for any other time of day. It is important to children to feel hungry and full on their own so they learn to adjust to their natural physiological set points.
- Warning children about weight gain
Many parents will adjust their children’s diet or ask them to step on the scale to monitor their weight when in fact this is more harmful from an emotional and mental standpoint than allowing your child to gain and lose weight naturally. Although excessive weight gain can be dangerous to a child’s health, it is important to always practice body positivity and to allow your child to gain weight naturally as they grow and mature into their teenage bodies. Weight gain is completely normal especially when children begin puberty.
- Complaining about excessive food
Taking food off the table to warning your child “not to overeat” or hiding food can lead to children feeling guilty for eating until they are full. This can also result in children being scared to eat food, feeling guilty if they ate “too much” or to eat more than they are hungry for because they are nervous the food may be taken away.
- Labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
Oftentimes, parents will label sugary, fried, and salty foods such a fries, donuts, cookies, and pizza as “bad” and fruits and vegetables as “good,” which can create a judgmental picture of food in your child’s head. Of course, you do not want your toddler to eat five bags of potato chips and a pound of candy but it is important to explain why some foods can help them grow strong and other foods are just fun “sometimes” foods. You can also use the example of foods that are always kept in the house (for example fruits, nuts, and vegetables) and fun foods that are sometimes kept in the house like sweets and treats.
- Talking about your diet
If you, as a parent, are trying to lose weight make sure you keep it to yourself. Kids will pick up on conversations about you going to a fitness class to lose weight, or that you are trying to fit into a certain dress or lose that extra five pounds. Kids will also watch how you look at yourself in the mirror and how you prepare your own food. If being on a diet is a normal way of life, your children may adapt to that lifestyle which places them at higher risk for developing an eating disorder.