This week, I received three calls from well-intentioned parents who had just found out that their daughters were in the serious grips of an eating disorder. One 12-year-old was downing 50 laxatives a day; another, a 15-year-old dancer, had lost over 10 lbs in a few months -- she was now 5' 7" and 105 lbs; a 13-year-old had been secretly bingeing and vomiting for at least six months.
Every mother told me a different version of the same story. "I didn't realize it was as bad as it was. I didn't want to be too controlling ... I didn't want to make the problem worse ... I didn't want to ruin our relationship." In each case, the parents thought they were making the right decision, based on their understanding of their child. All of them had been thinking alot about their kids. They weren't just ignoring things. They were trying to parent as they knew best.
So it is important to hear what I am about to say, without blame, without criticism, but more as a call to arms -- a cultural alarm. Parents, pay attention: We are in the midst of a crisis.
When it comes to food and weight, we need active parenting now. We have to be pro-active in the same way we are with drugs and alcohol.
Here are some thoughts as to what we can do:
- Talk about eating disorders and how dangerous they are. Talk about it in the same way you talk about lung cancer and smoking -- or death and drunk driving. It's that dangerous. It can't be ignored.
- Help your kids pay attention to their inner life. What are they feeling inside when they turn to the third batch of cookies, or when they are skipping breakfast and lunch? Be genuinely curious about their fears, thoughts and worries about their body. And educate them! They may not know that skipping breakfast and lunch disrupts metabolism.
- Help your kids be responsible for what they are eating. Allow them snacks. For example, it's okay to eat cake -- but how many times a day? And what should portion size look like? Talk, be curious, instruct and pay attention. Kids need to know that if they get too skinny or become anorexic, they won't be able to be in the school play or on the hockey team. Kids should be as scared of anorexia, binge eating and bulimia as they are of smoking and drunk driving. They also should know that there are many things that can be done to help if they worry they are in trouble with food.
- Finally, if you think a problem might exist, bring it up. In our book, "Surviving an Eating Disorder: Strategies for Family and Friends," turn to Chapter 5. We tell you what to do, and what to say so that you have the best potential to be heard.
One last word: It is very important to know that all the parents I mentioned were well-intentioned and trying to make the situation better, not worse. So when I tell parents to pay attention and list things they can do to help their child become healthier, the next thing that happens is that parents can skid into self blame and worry that they haven't done it right. This is not about blame -- it is about expanding awareness. Parents can't know what to do if they've never been taught how.
As a recent reader (librainstars) wrote after my last blog about fighting with your kids, "The hardest thing for me is thinking I am at fault".
Ironically, if you haven't felt that as a parent, likely you haven't really been in it as a parent -- it comes with the territory. But as we all know, self-blame leads to paralysis -- not growth. So when blame enters the picture, catch your breath and use the moment to just be curious. Put into words why you have made the decisions you have. There may be a clear reason why you have proceeded in the way you have, so explaining your rationale, your decision-making process -- even if it was faulty -- is great role modeling for your teenager. The work is to continue to think of ways you could have been more effective and keep a resolve to try to respond next time in a way that you will get the best of your kids -- and in which they will get the best of you.
In this culture of severely distorted eating and body image, getting the best of one's kids is going to mean trying over and again to listen, to pay attention and to talk. This is hard work. As the reader ended her response to me, so I will end my response to you: "Raising children should come with a book. I am glad, though, that it does come with love".