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Am I Creating Eating Disorders In My Children?

By November 14, 2012

I have an 8 year old boy and a 5 year old girl. I have a background of anorexia and bulimia. I overcame the physical aspects of these hurdles 17 years ago. Since then I have slowly chipped away at the psychological aspects of accepting my body the way it is. However, I am paranoid for my children. I have deep fears about them gaining weight and becoming obese. My friends know me as a “health nut.” I have tried to balance my family’s diet. I mostly buy nutritious snacks (like whole wheat cookies sweetened with fruit) maybe partly because of my paranoia, but also, I want my children to grow up with healthy eating habits. On Fridays we have “desert night” and eat “unhealthy” food. Every once in a while I buy potato chips or other “unhealthy” foods. I’ve been trying to call unhealthy food “treats” now. But my kids constantly talk about healthy vs. unhealthy food. They can’t wait to go to parties to get some “unhealthy” food. My daughter looked in the mirror today and said, “Mommy, look how skinny I am.” I’ve tried to enforce that some fat is good and O.K., and that all of our bodies are different. The other day she told me, “I don’t like fat people because they make me want to eat junk food.” I responded by saying that we should not hate people because of what they look like. Do I need some more counseling? Am I creating eating disorders in my children? Can the damage I’ve done to them be reversed? How can I teach my children healthy habits without creating a home atmosphere where my kids are obsessed about it? It seems like they talk about it all day even though I have tried not talking about it for months. I’m weary of talking about food, but they won’t stop. – Concerned & Confused Mom

Dear Concerned and Confused Mom:

I can tell from your letter that you want what’s best for your children in terms of their health. You are trying to provide nutritious meals and teach them to make healthful choices. As parents, however, we want to be careful not to instill fears in our children about specific foods or promote obsessive patterns of eating. I commend you for taking an honest look at your family and recognizing that something is out of balance.

In your efforts to teach your children to eat well, you have unintentionally taught them to categorize foods as “good” versus “bad” (except that you have used the labels of “healthy” versus “unhealthy”). Without a doubt, some foods are more nutritious than others, but nothing is evil or forbidden, and modest amounts of the not-so-healthy choices can still be included in overall healthful eating. Eating is designed for both nourishment and pleasure, and it’s fine to enjoy some “fun” foods. Most experts recommend striving for healthy choices 90% of the time. I think you understand this, but are having difficulty implementing it. Check out the articles in the “Eat Well, Live Well” section of this site to get a balanced perspective, and I also recommend Ellyn Satter’s book Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family—it’s a valuable tool to help you teach your kids to eat healthfully without obsession.

Without a doubt, you are your children’s most influential role model when it comes to instilling food attitudes and eating patterns. You have good intentions in wanting to eat healthfully, but there is a possibility that you are leaning towards a form of disordered eating called “orthorexia,” in which there is an obsessive focus on healthy food. For more on this, you might want to read my article “Organic Foods: The Whole Truth,” which includes resources regarding orthorexia, in addition to other information that you will find useful.

Your loving concern for your children is obviously motivating you to take action. Please check out the resources I am recommending, and follow up on Leanne’s advice to get the support you need (see below).

Blessings,

Ann

Dear Concerned Mom:

I really welcome your question to the Fb site. I agree with Ann that it is obvious that you love your children. And your heart’s desire is that they not experience a physical state (obesity) that would perhaps make them feel feelings that you have felt. As a mother (who struggles with obesity and has a history of disordered eating) I “get” the goal you seek. As a professional and person in recovery (meaning not using disordered or media-fed means to control my body) I also hear that you believe, based on your daughter’s words, that your original intention to help your children avoid an issue may have consequences in a direction you do not like.

Most recently I have felt inundated by the amount of advertisements, newspaper stories, magazine covers, etc. that scream, “Our children are overweight!” While the data may represent a fact that Americans are increasingly overweight, it can trigger some persons (with disordered eating in their histories and living on the cusp of their own hearts) into franticly trying to avoid being the mom with the overweight kids. Just as some females were getting their own recovery into check we got triggered once again by the cultural swings of the media, the researchers, and the fanatics. We (disordered eaters) finally accepted that we handled our emotions (anxiety, fear, etc.) by making our bodies obey. So, we sought balance, harmony and peace and sought mental health and personal growth. Some of us had children, and we wanted to be good moms and loving moms and aware moms and then came the blitz—America’s kids are fat. And that part of us (that used to work on controlling our bodies) decided to control the food for the family and fought to insure that the statistics would not describe the children in our domicile.

Based on what you write, you have defined loving your children by how you manage to make sure they avoid something. You also seem to view being overweight, or anything more than exactly what they should be, as negative. And, as Ann has pointed out, you have changed the “good food/bad food” list with a twist of semantics (to unhealthy vs. healthy) but the implied message the children are hearing is this: some foods are good and safe and some foods are bad and scary and need to be restricted and controlled. And the days the children do not want to be controlled (which no child does) they want to be where they can eat without the need to judge or worry.

I think it is important that you consider what a fully balanced family entails. Is it more then NOT being overweight? Will a specific number on the scale at doctor’s appointments (for your children) determine how perfect you are as a mom? What other aspects of your children’s’ lives needs to be addressed? Emotional? Spiritual? Intellectual? Well adjusted, happy individuals are not necessarily always thin.

So, consider the following: read the articles Ann offered including Ellyn Satter’s work. Next, please read John Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. Dr. Gottman’s material will provide you a step-by-step process (five steps to be exact) on emotionally coaching your child, and it will be very helpful when you want to respond to any of your children after they make comments such as your daughter’s. Gottman’s work allows you to go beyond just suggesting your daughter accept persons of different shapes and sizes (really a double message for her because you have acted in such a way that she heard food could behave badly and it needed to be controlled so that it would not act out in your body).

As you continue to grow as a mom, and figure out how to love well, love intentionally, and love in a way that promotes overall balance in health you will want resources that guide you to handle exchanges with your children when they exhibit things you do not feel are healthy. Dr. Gottman’s five step process will help you go deeper with your daughter in conversation then just demanding that she put up with people who are different. It will tell you how to respond back to her in such a way that she begins to think and feel her own self. My fear is that if you continue to handle your own fears by instilling ideas about what is alright to eat on the weekdays and what is “weekend only” food you will train the children to listen to your voice, heed your thoughts, and own your feelings instead of being able to explain, notice and be aware of what they are feeling in their own bodies.

I think powerful moms work plans that promote balance and health. And when powerful moms hear that they need to make adjustments so that their child(ren) live free of habits, hang ups and hurts, they do just that. They are intentional about changing.

That means you can go to your children and suggest: “You know guys, mommy wants to apologize. I realize I have been working too hard to tell you what to eat and when to eat it. And I figured out that your tummies are perfectly capable of letting you know when you are hungry and what you are hungry for. You know enough about food to pick out what you need. So, mommy is going to stop saving food for certain days or events. I believe you can handle feeding your bodies. So, from now on you can take care of you, starting now!”

This exchange gives the children permission to listen to their own bodies, allows you to send the message to your children that you believe they are competent and can listen to their own body hunger, and frees you from the job of food patrol.

Please review the materials we have asked you to spend time with and write back and let us know what you have done with any of our feedback. You are a powerful mom to share what you heard your daughter say and to own the idea that we, as parents, can pass our own “stuff” down like a virus to our children and we must not do that. We must choose to stop and let them live differently ten we did by their choosing and NOT our control.

God bless,

Leanne