As parents we showed them their world until they developed their own views. Now, we may need to reframe what they see in it… and themselves.

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We gave them milk, then solid food. Then we trust them to feed themselves with all we’ve taught them as they grow. But what do you do as a parent when your family or environment has a history of disordered eating habits?

How can a parent help their child before an eating disorder (ED) becomes all that they know?

In Part 1 of this guide, we show you how to keep your home a place full of transparency, real-world preparedness, and support.

In Part 2 of this guide, we focus on identifying eating disorders and setting up your child for successful treatment that lasts.

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to eating disorders and how they ultimately develop. People often blame the media for presenting unattainable body ideals, or American society as a whole for its intense focus on body perfection.

But in recent years, scientists have discovered nervous system and brain roots to anorexia and bulimia, two of the most common eating disorders.

What this means is that these conditions actually start in the brain. While culture and environment can play a part in their development, eating disorders are about more than just a maladaptive relationship with food.

Types of eating disorders

Anorexia is characterized by extreme food restriction. Bulimia can present as periods of bingeing and purging, fasting, and engaging in excessive exercise.

Both conditions are marked by an intense fear of gaining weight. Both have a higher likelihood of developing if a relative also has an eating disorder.

Other eating disorders that may appear during childhood include binge eating disorder, which is marked by excessive overeating, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which is a fairly new diagnosis.

ARFID identifies people who develop anxiety and disordered eating that’s limited to extremely selective food items and methods of preparation. They may only have a short list of specific foods they can or will eat.

Pica is another eating disorder. It’s characterized by the constant craving and eating of nonfood items like paint, chalk, and pebbles.

Pica goes beyond the first 5 years of life when babies and tots put everything into their mouth. This chewing and fully ingesting nonedible items goes into late childhood and the teen years. It may include eating items like nail polish, hair, dirt. Eating these nonfood items can become a compulsion.

Both girls and boys experience eating disorders. For some, like in the sports realm, disordered eating can spur from anxiety over wanting to gain weight. Your child might express intensity and urgency over “bulking up.”

All these eating disorders can have different triggers and nuances. What scientists have learned about anorexia and bulimia in particular is that people who have these conditions seem to have an altered reward system in their brain. For them, dopamine levels are different when it comes to food and eating.

The gist

While there are many types of eating disorders, they share a basis beyond starvation, elimination, aversion, or extreme consumption: They start in the brain.

When a child develops an eating disorder, there’s often more going on than a fixation on weight.

Let us be very clear on this point: If your child has developed an eating disorder, there is no one person to blame.

Brain chemistry plays a large part in the development of these disorders (and, in the case of ARFID, there may also be sensory sensitivities and previous choking incidents involved).

That said, research has found there’s a higher likelihood of developing an eating disorder if a relative or someone close to the family has an eating disorder.

Genetic — or inherited traits — can be the case, but not always.

It’s also important to remember that while biological differences have a hand in the development of eating disorders, studies have shown that environment can also play a role.

If a parent is displaying disordered eating habits, or if their language reflects an eating disorder mentality (such as a constant focus on weight and eating habits), kids and teens can pick up on that and be more likely to mirror those behaviors themselves.

The gist

There are multiple factors involved in the development of an eating disorder. No one factor, or person, is to blame. But a family member’s behavior in the home can contribute to a child’s risk of developing an eating disorder.

Treating an eating disorder can be difficult, which is why prevention of eating disorders is pivotal.

Stay encouraged. There are steps you can take to help your kid develop a healthy relationship with their body and the nutrition they give it.

Seek treatment yourself

You know what they say: “Children don’t do as we say, they do as we do.”

So, if you’ve dealt with an eating disorder in the past, or if you currently have disordered eating habits, one of the best things you can do as a parent is to start seeing a therapist.

Find a therapist who specializes in eating disorder behaviors who can help you work through those challenges.

Eating disorder help for parents can trickle down to their kids. By working toward the goal of having a healthy relationship with your body and food, you will help your child develop the same.

Build your child’s self-esteem

A child or teen with high self-esteem is a kid who is going to be confident in the choices they make and the way they interact with the world.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are several factors that contribute to the development of self-esteem in children. They include having a sense of:

  • security
  • belonging
  • personal competence and pride

You can help your child develop strong self-esteem by first providing a safe and welcoming space for them to grow up in — a home where they know they’re loved and accepted for exactly who they are, in whatever shape or form.

From there, self-esteem development is about more than simply lavishing praise upon them. It’s about providing them opportunities to fail and succeed on their own merits, so that they can develop confidence and pride in their abilities.

The gist

Just as flight attendants say during the safety message aboard an airplane, it’s the same between you and your kid: “Secure your mask first so you can assist the person next to you.”

Consider addressing your own disordered eating thoughts or habits, and with a professional, if needed. Then, work on building your child’s self-esteem to fortify their mind.

Use body and food positive language

It’s important to be conscious of your own language when it comes to talking about yourself, your children, and even strangers on the street.

Many parents with a history of disordered eating continue to struggle with negative self-talk, especially when it comes to their bodies.

Try to shift that habit by reminding yourself to talk about your body in the same way you would want your child to talk about theirs — with a positive mindset.

Focus on the strength and overall health of that body as opposed to the number on a scale or a pants size.

Don’t label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’

We want our kids to view food as a form of nourishment, not as something to fear or avoid. This is why it’s important to never label foods as “good” or “bad.” Food is simply food.

Similarly, food shouldn’t be used as a reward or punishment (e.g., “I’ll get you ice cream if you finish your homework” or “You can’t have dessert unless you finish your meal.”)

These practices can create unhealthy habits for kids over time that can be hard to break.

Enjoy mealtimes together

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages families to eat together. It prescribes the “parent provides, child decides” methodology for mealtimes.

What this means is that parents should set mealtimes and decide what is served at those mealtimes. During mealtimes, children are given the autonomy to decide what they will eat.

For instance, you may decide to serve chicken, green beans, berries, and potatoes for dinner. Instead of getting into a negotiation with your child over how many bites of each item they should eat, allow them to make those decisions — knowing they won’t be given another opportunity to eat until their next meal or snack.

You can help them make appropriate choices by ensuring at least one item at every meal is something you know they like and will eat.

By enjoying each item yourself, you set the example you want your child to follow.

Create a hearth of openness

Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do to prevent an eating disorder in their child is to create a safe and open home for them.

From an early age, you can make sure your child knows there’s nothing they can’t talk with you about. You may set that example by always hearing them out when they come to you, and by being open and honest yourself when they ask questions.

By establishing a relationship of trust, you increase the likelihood that they will come to you if they start to struggle. And this will allow you to get them the help they need early on if signs of disordered eating do become apparent.