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10 Tips for Parents with Eating Disorder Histories to Avoid ‘Passing it On’ to Their Children

Eating disorders and body image concern are unfortunately very frequently intergenerational, or passed from one generation to the other. We can presume that some of this is due to biological factors that predispose someone to having an eating disorder due to certain personality traits like being overly conscientious or perfectionistic or being more impulsive or more anxious. However, an eating disorders is in very large part determined by environment and learning history, and these are also the only aspects a parent can control when it comes to helping their child avoid developing an eating disorder.  According to the cognitive behavioral theory of an eating disorder’s development, it is brought about by an internalization of a thin ideal, perfectionistic standards, and the idea of having more control over one’s body size and shape than may actually be the case. Much of this is shaped by the media and peers, but parents greatly influence their kids as well. Parents are a primary source of teaching their kids about their personal worth, what eating behaviors they pick up, and general ideas about their beliefs about food. Children also learn a lot about food and eating from observing their parents eat and observing how they talk about food and themselves and how they look at each other in the mirror. If you have an eating disorder, or even one in remission, you may not realize it, but chances are there are hundreds of thoughts and behaviors you might engage in during any given day that your child would pick up on.

  1. For parents with a history of an ED with concerns about passing on these behaviors and thoughts to their kids, the first step is to increase your self awareness. Increase your self awareness about the thoughts you think around meal times, different body checking or avoidance behaviors you may engage in such as feeling for any fat around your waist, scrutinizing yourself in the mirror, or keeping your jacket on even though you’re warm. You can increase your self awareness through self monitoring or just taking notes on these things and when they happen. Ask for feedback from your partner, other family members, and friends.​ Next, you of course want to be able to be mindful of an urge to do any of these things and figure out a way not to or to postpone it until later or go in the other room so you aren’t doing this in front of your child.
  2. Be mindful of how you talk about your and others’ bodies. Even passing comments about “looking gross” or “that isn’t flattering” can have a big impact on your child’s beliefs about body image.
  3. Start early with trying to prevent ED behaviors and thinking to be passed on. Make meal times fun and relaxed for your child. Also, as it is frequently recommended to eat with your toddler and eat the same things when they are learning how to eat, this may require some flexibility on your part about food choices.
  4. Also, you may want to consult a pediatric nutritionist to learn exactly what your child should be eating so that you do not pass on distorted thinking about what foods are “healthy” to your child.
  5. Even with older adolescents, eating meals together promotes healthy ideas about eating and can serve as a protective factor against eating disorder development.
  6. Keep in mind that infants and toddlers understand a great deal that they don’t let on, so be careful how you talk about food and body image in front of them.
  7. Talk to your child if you notice any signs of body image concern or self-critical thoughts about their appearance. Early intervention is key, so if you can catch them talking about their body in a negative way or about someone else’s, it’s a good opportunity to have a conversation about why they are thinking that way or feeling that way.
  8. Model for your child how to have more positive self-talk. When you look at yourself in the mirror, try to compliment yourself on something that is not body shape or weight related, like your hair or eyes.
  9. Model eating regularly for your child. That is, so not go for more than 3-4 waking hours without eating something and teach your child that it is important to eat consistently during the day. Similarly, model eating without the tv on and while sitting down at the table. The more eating can be a positive experience for you and your child, the better.
  10. Avoid making comments about food being healthy or not, beneficial or worthless, etc. Instead, try to promote a nonjudgmental view of food and focus more on what the food is and its positive attributes such as tasting good or looking good.

Lastly, you know the warning signs of an eating disorder well. If you notice yourself starting to slip after being pregnant or while going through different challenging phases of parenthood, don’t hesitate to seek out help for yourself. If you notice subtle signs of an eating disorder from your child, talk to them and seek professional help for them as well. CBT for eating disorders has a great deal of research support of its efficacy and effectiveness.