In recent years, an awareness surrounding eating disorders has begun to break its way into society, yet there are still misconceptions associated with eating disorders. Although disordered eating is often considered to be targeted at those belonging to the late adolescence or adult demographic, the reality is: they entirely disregard age. Eating disorders don’t discriminate, affecting individuals of all cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and age. For this reason, it is increasingly important to begin encouraging your child to develop a healthy relationship with food from an early stage in their life. Conditioning positive perceptions regarding eating will equip them with a healthy attitude towards creating and maintaining a balanced lifestyle as they grow up.
The domino effect of misinformation
Those growing up today ar considered to be the first generation of the new health era. Many of their grandparents grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, an age when nutrition was focused on minimizing meal size. A domino effect was underway, unknowingly passing misinformed relationships with food to their children. Now, as children grow up, there is heightened possibility that they, too, are carrying misperceptions about food and health. This is why we need to alter our attitude towards eating, nutrition, and health.
It’s especially difficult to do this with children, with the focus on various dietary guidelines pediatricians provide for “ideal” growth. Parents may become so strict with nutritional protocols, striving to meet the daily requirements set for their child’s age range, that suddenly eating becomes a mechanical process. Though this parental behavior stems from positive intentions, aiming to ensure their child is healthy, notions that food is something to be carefully controlled and monitored is implicitly being taught. Instead, we suggest parents show their kids that all foods have a place in a healthy diet and that no food is good or bad.
Tackling stressors early on
Perhaps your child doesn’t show direct signs of disordered eating but does demonstrate symptoms in line with anxiety. Eating disorders exist across varying forms and regardless of the specific behavioral pattern they do manifest into, they are often accompanied by mental health disorders, like anxiety or depression. Once a disordered relationship begins, so does a significant amount of anxiety around food, which may stem from misconceptions regarding nutrition or confusion around what it means to live a healthy lifestyle.
Beginning self-care (as it pertains to eating) early on will enable you to apply an educational approach to your child’s mealtime practices, which can help to negate potential anxiety. In some cases, disordered eating is utilized as a method of coping with other physical or mental health concerns. Recognizing that these illnesses can coexist will help you initiate appropriate conversations to build your child’s bank of self-management tools to maintain positive perceptions of eating.
Reframing the way your child views eating
The most important conversation to have with your child as they begin their relationship with eating is that food isn’t a systematic practice of adding and subtracting but rather, at its roots, the starring role in their self-care routine. Create an open dialogue surrounding nutrition to provide a safe space where they can navigate a balanced lifestyle on their own terms. When you have discussions with your child about eating, refrain from setting strict divisions between ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. Rather, place emphasis on the fact that no particular food falls into a black and white category in this way. Remind them consistently that every type of food, regardless of the health stigma attached to it, has a place in their life.
A positive way to go about this is by making cooking a bonding experience. Framing your child’s learning experience as a fun and caring moment shared between you and them can enable nutrition to be something to look forward to. Tackling the cooking process meal by meal, creating each dish together while actively encouraging your child to include all types of food. Walk them through why occasionally incorporating a cookie as a lunchtime dessert is just as important to their self-care routine as adding plenty of vegetables. Focus on terminology like “nourishing” or “balanced” to allow your child to view a variety of foods as equally beneficial to their lifestyle.
Reframe the way your child experiences life around eating
Health culture throughout the years has fallen into the routine of perpetuating the stressful perception that leading an active lifestyle is our primary tool to managing the food we consume. Help your child understand that exercise and activity should never be solely determined by what or how much they’ve eaten. As with preparing meals, make physical activity a team effort to create positive associations. By creating a direct connection between activity and family or friends, it leaves little opportunity for a connection to food and emphasizes it as an entirely separate sector of their daily self-care routine. Frame food as a nourishing experience that helps your child play more, which provides an exciting incentive around mealtimes.
Food isn’t just fuel, it’s something to enjoy
Beyond the educational components of nutrition, develop warm attitudes towards food that exude excitement, happiness, and appreciation. A common tactic utilized in the restoration of healthy eating habits once a disordered relationship has begun, is that food is necessary to fuel for our bodies. While this is true, it can also lead an individual to view eating as something they need to do as opposed to something they look forward to doing. Eating should never feel like a chore. Help to make each meal feel like a small, celebratory event full of gratitude for its presence in your life, ability to bring loved ones together, and to make life more enjoyable.
If you recognize eating disorder symptoms and behaviors in your child, it is important to reach out for help as soon as possible. Early intervention and support is key to a lifelong recovery from an eating disorder. If you are interested in learning more about The Emily Program, please call us at 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online form.