By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
As an eating disorders therapist and woman who spent decades in the grip of food and body obsession, I walk around with my antenna tuned in to whatever might help me understand how we got ourselves into this mess. While many different things can contribute to somebody developing an eating disorder, one common contributor is the innocent handing down of what I call, the dysfunctional baton.
Recently in a grocery store check-out line, I stood behind a thirty-something mom and her little girl. The mother was chatting on her cell phone while the daughter was clinging to her mom’s leg with one hand and sucking on the thumb of the other.
The mother’s side of the conversation went like this: “Oh, I was so bad yesterday! I had a whole piece of chocolate cake at the party. I am not eating any carbs today. I feel as big as a house.”
I wanted to hand the daughter my business card right then and there! I refrained, though, since the kid, still in diapers, was a little too young for therapy.
My point is that your children are listening. They are listening when you partake in what I call “fat chat.” They are listening when you say you “feel fat” (which, by the way, is not a feeling!) They are listening when you say you were “bad” or “good” or “evil or “sinned” because of a food you either ate or didn’t eat. They are listening when you comment on other people’s bodies, or your own.
Every year, my clients get younger. I have seen six-year-olds who are already dieting and know about carbs, fats and calories. I worked with a seven-year-old girl who was spitting up her food because she was convinced that calories were bad for her. Last year, I had a nine-year-old client who had to change her school clothes several times each morning till she found something she didn’t “feel fat” in. Most often, though, people don’t get to my door until they have been entrenched in food and “body image struggles” for many years. While an eating disorder is possible to overcome, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to heal. We need to do prevention at the ground level. We have a choice: We can teach our children to relax, listen to their bodies and love themselves, or we can teach them to be anxious, controlling, and out of touch with their own hunger and fullness.
My message here is not to blame or shame, but nearly to highlight the fact that unless we model healthy, balanced, and loving relationships with food and our own bodies, our children are at risk for developing disordered eating and poor body images. Take a look at the messages you are teaching. Role model a relaxed, flexible relationship with food. Stay conscious of your body’s hunger in fullness needs and act on them. Get help if you can’t. Treat your body with respect and appreciation. After all, isn’t this what we want our kids to do?
Tips for Helping Your Child with Body Image
• If you find yourself “feeling fat,” explore a little deeper to see if there’s something else going on in your life. Model for your children that “fat” is not a feeling, but rather “feeling fat” can be a distraction from more difficult issues.
• Try not to label food as “good” or “bad.” Some foods are more nutrient dense than others, but morally all food is equal — it’s fuel! Talk with your kids about the nutritional value and variety of different foods, the art of cooking, and the fun and the pleasure of eating.
• Talk to your kids about the difference between emotional and physical hunger and how the two often get mixed up. Physical hunger is a feeling in the belly that the body needs fuel. Teach kids to notice degrees of hunger and fullness as well as how to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Emotional hunger is usually a need to express feelings or have feelings acknowledged. When kids are sad, they might need to cry, talk about it, or draw a picture. When they are mad, they might want to write, draw, punch a pillow, tell you about it with gusto, and have you really hear them.
• Along these same lines, talk about the role of feelings: that they are signposts for living, and not to be “stuffed” or “starved” away. Teach them that just like there are no “good” or “bad” foods, there are no “good” or bad” feelings.
• Do not comment on other people’s bodies. This sets up a comparison mentality that is harmful and hard to give up. Talk about how everyone is beautiful in their own way, and that beauty is an inner quality that can be expressed in outer characteristics such as kindness and enthusiasm.
• Exercise with your kids for the joy of movement, not for how many calories you might burn.
• Look at family photos and talk about where your size and shape came from.
• Watch TV together and discuss the emphasis our culture places on looks, image, and thinness. Help them to notice special qualities in themselves like compassion and humor as well as things that interest them beyond their appearance. Teach them that they are enough just by being who they are — on the inside. (While you’re at it, think about yourself that way, too!)
• Do de-stressing activities together, like: listening to music, walking, spending time in nature, playing games, doing a hobby or craft, or reading and discussing a particular book.
• Help them to foster love for themselves when they look in the mirror. Teach them to “see” themselves with the same love that they feel for other people or animals in their lives.
• Make a list together of all the things that our bodies do for us. Help them to appreciate their various body parts rather than criticize them.
• Talk about what makes a good role model. Ask for an example of a person who seems to be a healthy, balanced eater with a positive body image. Discuss what qualities that person has that demonstrate good health. Ask your child to imagine having those same qualities inside.
• Teach your child that weight fluctuations are normal and healthy and that we all have a natural weight range just like we have a natural eye and hair color. Help them prepare for weight changes, especially girls approaching puberty.
• Role model and practice all of these things along with your child so they can experience you as a healthy eater with loving body image!