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Eating Disorders Awareness Week: How Parents Can Help

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which is sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

Like I said in my post on Weightless, I believe that awareness means spreading accurate information about eating disorders.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that parents cause eating disorders. They don’t!

In fact, many complex factors are involved in predisposing a person to an eating disorder. According to eating disorder specialist Sarah Ravin, Ph.D:

“…the development of an eating disorder is influenced very heavily by genetics, neurobiology, individual personality traits, and co-morbid disorders. Environment clearly plays a role in the development of eating disorders, but environment alone is not sufficient to cause them.”

(Check out her blog post for more.)

But while parents don’t cause eating disorders, they can make a difference in their child’s life by creating a safe, diet-free and nurturing environment.

As Kenneth L. Weiner, M.D., co-founder and CEO of the Eating Recovery Center, said recently:

“Because eating disorders are genetic, an individual who has a family history is much more likely to be sensitive to others’ words and actions surrounding food and body image. It’s important for families to talk about these deadly diseases and avoid behaviors and actions that could act as eating disorder triggers.”

Below Dr. Weiner and other eating disorder specialists from the Eating Recovery Center share some of the ways you can help your child. (I think these tips are relevant for all kids):

Keep an eye out on changes. “Parents should be aware of drastic changes in eating habits like vegetarianism or vegan outside of family norms; it can be a red flag even if for health or humanitarian reasons. Many young adults will start on a ‘health kick’ with dietary modifications or a ‘commitment to exercise’ on their way to an eating disorder,” says Ovidio Bermudez, M.D., medical director of child and adolescent services at the Eating Recovery Center.

Focus on the inside. According to Dr. Weiner, “Families and parents don’t cause eating disorders, but if they are extremely health conscious or appearance focused, it can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. It’s important to focus on the inside, not the outside. It’s who children are, not what they are.”

Avoid negative appearance-based comments. “Negative comments about your child’s body (looks, weight, size, shape, etc.) could cause him or her to feel the need to look a certain way in order to be accepted and popular, remember to focus on his or her inner qualities,” says Carolyn Jones, R.N., director of nursing at the center.

Also, don’t make disparaging comments about other people’s appearance, even if it’s meant to be a joke.

Teach your kids about the realities of the media. “Help your child be ‘media literate,’ meaning he or she questions what we see in the media and realizes it can create unrealistic expectations,” Jones adds.

Inform them that all images in magazines and ads are extensively airbrushed. Tell them to be critical about what they hear in the media, and to question a company’s motives.

Diet and weight-loss companies profit when people feel badly about their bodies. They profit when we internalize the thin ideal. So have kids question where the thin-is-in and pro-dieting messages are coming from.

Make sure your child knows that there are no “good” or “bad” foods, and avoid being restrictive. According to Enola Gorham, MSW, the clinical director at the center: “Parents should be careful what sort of ‘rules’ they set around food. Here in the United States, we’re lucky enough to have an array of food choices, which causes us to set ‘rules’ for how and what we eat. For example, ‘I only eat whole wheat,’ or ‘I won’t eat fish grown in farms,’ to help us manage the vast amount of choices we face daily. However, if you have a child that has a genetic predisposition for an eating disorder, he or she may try to gain control of a fast-paced, stressful environment by following all the rules, including the good food versus bad food ‘rules.’”

Additional Actions to Avoid

The Eating Recovery Center included other valuable insights in their article.

Below are seemingly harmless behaviors that can put an already vulnerable child at risk (these are taken verbatim):

  • The use of food as a reward or a punishment. When parents use food as a reward or punishment, it can teach their child to turn to food for comfort, tie emotions to eating and permanently affect a child’s relationship with food.
  • Dieting. Not only does dieting keep people from listening to what their bodies need, 95 percent of individuals who go on a diet actually put the weight back on in the next two or three years. Furthermore, for an individual who is genetically predisposed to an eating disorder, dieting can be a gateway to disordered eating behaviors.
  • Ignoring genetics. An individual with an immediate family member who had anorexia nervosa is 12 times more likely to develop the disease; and four times more likely to develop bulimia nervosa. Individuals with a family history should be especially vigilant of disordered eating behaviors if their loved one is involved in sports – especially those with a focus on weight management such as ballet, gymnastics or wrestling.

Healthy Eating

Today, thanks to our diet-obsessed society and the hysteria over “childhood obesity,” it can be especially difficult for parents to know how to feed their kids without imposing potentially harmful rules.

On Weightless, my blog about body image, the skinny fad and freedom from numbers, I interviewed feeding expert Katja Rowell, M.D., for insight. See what she had to say about healthful feeding in part 1, part 2 and part 3 of our interview. (She provides many valuable tips.)

What if your child is struggling with an eating disorder?

If your child does develop an eating disorder, it’s important to remember that it’s not your fault!

But you can do so much to help. Again, you play a pivotal role in supporting your child and finding him or her effective treatment.

For more information on effective treatment, warning signs, the highly effective family-based treatment (for anorexia) and what you can do, please check out the below posts from Weightless:

Eating Disorders Awareness Week: How Parents Can Help

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Eating Disorders Awareness Week: How Parents Can Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Feb 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.