Eating disorders affect more than 24 million people in the United States, most of them between the ages of 12 and 25.* It isn't a disease you can treat with a pill, or fix with an operation, and many parents don't even realize their children are affected.
Eating disorders (including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating) affect both boys and girls, but the largest population at risk is young women. And while there's nothing definitive you can do to prevent an eating disorder in your child, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk, and increase the chance of her (or him) having a positive body image.
Remember you're being watched.
"It's really important that a parent is aware of their own body image, and any concerns they might have about her own body and how that gets portrayed to her children," explains Meg Newman, MS, LMFT, a Los Angeles-based therapist and Kids in the House expert. "If a child sees that her mother is constantly berating herself for what she looks like, or constantly trying to fix or alter her body in some way, there's the sense that the mom feels that she's not okay with herself, and this transfers down to the child, and maybe her own anxiety about what she looks like."
Psychologist Melissa Johnson, PhD, agrees. "We live in a culture that is a diet culture, obsessed with thinness, and that impacts both how we feel about our bodies and how our girls feel about theirs. One of the really valuable things we can do to help our girls, is to value and appreciate and enjoy our own bodies. So, as a caution watch out for the negative comments you make about your own body; the grimaces in the mirror when you're looking at yourself. Watch those, because your daughter is also watching those. And find ways that you can speak positively about your body. Mindfully, find things that you enjoy about your body; things your body can do. Move beyond appearance. You can see the sunset. You can walk. You can hug. You can hug each other. You can both laugh, joyful belly laughs together. All of that feels good in our bodies and celebrating that will help you and your girl."
Focus on the positive.
Unlike the risks of alcohol or drugs, when it comes to eating disorders, sometimes talking about the issue can do more harm than good. "Teaching ,about anorexia and bulimia can actually be harmful to girls because once they learn the details of what anorexia and bulimia actually are, they're more likely to engage in those behaviors than girls who were never exposed to that information," cautions SuEllen Hamkins, MD, a psychiatrist and author. Instead, she suggests focusing on building a strong body image and sense of self. "Help them feel strong in their bodies, feel good in their bodies, to enjoy the taste of food. And also, you can help them enjoy all the areas of life that have nothing to do with how they look but have to do with who they are, what they think, what they do and what they can make. In addition, you can let your daughter know that she doesn't need to buy into images that have an ultra thin ideal."
Understand dad's impact.
"A few words from a father can have the same impact as 1,000 words from a mother," says JoAnn Deak, PhD, a psychologist and author who has conducted research on how interactions with fathers affect young women. "There is clear evidence that in general fathers have more of an impact on a daughter's self-esteem than mothers do... and so, as a girl moves into adolescence with her changing and maturing body, one of the worst things that can happen is a father making any comment about body image... it can be really devastating. One word from a father can throw a girl into anorexia or self-harm. If a dad says, 'Looking a little chubby, aren't you? Do you really want that extra cookie?', we are stunned by the negative affect."
Do what you can, but don't blame yourself.
Sometimes, despite doing all of this and more, a child will still develop an eating disorder. And when this happens, it's easy for parents to blame themselves. Maggie Baumann, MFT, a certified eating disorder specialist, urges parents not to feel responsible. "Eating disorders are caused by a variety of factors and these include genetics and environmental factors, [as well as] what's going on in the house, if there's any trauma or abuse. Can a parent contribute to an eating disorder? Yes, a parent can, but not always." Instead of dwelling on what you could have done differently in the past, Baumann suggests focusing on what can be done in the present and future. "The important thing for parents to remember is that they can play an important role in the recovery of a child's eating disorder by offering support and love, and being involved in the treatment of the child."
For more support and advice on helping children develop a healthy body image, watch these videos on Kids in the House.
How mom's body image affects her child's body image - Meg Newman, MS, LMFT
How to help girls avoid eating disorders - SuEllen Hamkins, MD
How fathers affect their daughter's self-esteem - JoAnn Deak, PhD