As part of the launch of our eating disorder treatment centre, we’ll be writing regular articles around issues with poor body image, disordered eating, dieting and excessive exercise. Please let us know if there are any topics you’d like us to explore in future articles. In our first article for 2024, we’re looking at the vital role that parents play in body image and attitude towards food.
How we develop our attitude to food and weight?
Unfortunately, most eating disorders start in our teens, and the attitudes and beliefs we develop in our formative years are the foundation for how we feel about ourselves and behave towards food for the rest of our lives. We regularly work with children from the age of 13, as part of our teenage eating disorder treatment service and have to help them change their mindset and reset misplaced beliefs and fears around eating, food and the way they look.
When we’re young, the language we hear used at home about weight and size and how other people talk about themselves around us makes a deep impact on us. The ideas of what is “good” or “bad” when it comes to how we look and what we eat are also built up at this impressionable age. This is why it is vital that parents are aware of their attitudes and behaviours and are good role models for their kids.
But we know that it isn’t easy. So, in this article, we’re going to give you some advice on what you can do to really help your kids and things you should try and avoid.
Take an honest look at your own behaviour and thoughts around food and body image
Before you can help your kids to feel good about themselves and develop a healthy attitude to food, you need to put yourself under the spotlight. This may be uncomfortable, but try and listen to what you’re saying to others and yourself and how you behave around food. Most of us grew up with Mothers who always dieted, in a culture where being thin was a key aim. You probably remember being harshly judged for putting on weight, or praised for losing it for most of your life. As a result, we tend to be very negative when we look in the mirror, judging ourselves harshly for our perceived flaws, rather than embracing and loving who we are.
You may not realise it, but if you look at yourself critically and complain about being fat, your children will be watching and copying. You are their most powerful influence while they are young, so trying to change your behaviour and language towards food and your body is one of the very best things you can do for them. Practicing self-love and acceptance will be good for you too!
Beware of judging or praising people based on looks
While body positivity and inclusiveness in the media is on the rise, fat shaming is still a normal behaviour. When they see people on the TV, or in magazines, many people will comment on their weight – for good or bad. Try to resist the temptation to comment if someone has gained or lost weight and don’t refer to others or yourself as fat.
Each judgement or comment can trigger bad feelings in young people and make them reflect that they are not good enough. Shift the focus onto achievements and personality when commenting on famous people, so it is not simply about the way people look.
Even compliments can be problematic. Think about the most common compliments that we give to each other. Most of them will relate to looks, whether it’s general appearance or clothes, and women will often compliment each other for losing weight. Although we’re trying to be positive and supportive by using these compliments, the message for our young people is that the most important thing is your looks and that will be what gets you praised and noticed.
If you can shift the way you praise and compliment your kids, yourself and your friends, you can really help the way they think and feel about themselves. Why not compliment their choices or decisions, their personality or their behaviour towards others instead? These are things they have control over and which are the essence of who they are, rather than what they look like.
Aim for body neutrality
One good way to change your mindset and language around body shape and weight is to aim for body neutrality. WebMD defines body neutrality as “the act of taking a neutral stance toward your body… That means not supporting the hatred towards your body’s “limitations” or investing time and energy to love it either. You can simply be at peace with your body.”
It encourages us to think about how amazing our body is for what it does for us, how it enables us to live our lives, rather than praise or criticise it for looks or limitations.
Encourage balance and focus on health
When it comes to food, our job as parents is to ensure our kids have enough food to provide the right nutrients to grow, develop and flourish. There’s a lot of pressure out there to make sure they are eating the “right” kind of foods, but obsession with the right foods, also leads to fear around “wrong” foods. This can pass the message on to our kids that we should limit and control our intake and that is not what we should be aiming for.
The best thing that we can do for our children is to encourage a varied and balanced diet from an early age, as well as taking the time to educate them on healthy foods and what their bodies need. Nothing should be off limits, but healthy, unprocessed, nutrient rich foods should feature prominently in their diets and be encouraged. Explaining what these great foods do for our body should be the focus, rather than that they help you lose weight.
A good nutritional education will help your kids to be healthy inside and outside the house and make better decisions as adults too. But don’t demonise certain foods or food groups either, everything is fine in moderation and nothing should be off limits. It’s all about speaking to them about having less of those foods that are high in fat and sugar, as they don’t give the nutrition that our bodies need, but they are delicious and should be enjoyed too.
This same message can be applied to exercise. We know how good it is for our bodies and minds to exercise and physical activity should be encouraged as part of a child’s daily routine from an early age. But it should definitely not be with the aim of losing weight or toning up. The key is to find activities your child loves, which gets them moving on a regular basis and incorporate a small amount of exercise into family activities every day. Moderate, enjoyable exercise for health and enjoyment should be encouraged, rather than focus on how many calories it burns.
If we change our language, behaviour and focus from weight to health, you will be making positive choices and inspiring healthy habits in the whole family for the long-term.
Be kind to yourself and others
The aim is to be kind to ourselves and love who we are inside and out. When we eat and exercise from a place of self-love, we will make nourishing food choices and exercise in the right way for us. Habits such as mindful eating and a focus on health rather than weight will keep us in balance and stop the obsession with the numbers on the scale, or a certain dress size.
This advice can be surprisingly hard to follow for parents with poor body image and a negative relationship with food. But breaking this negative cycle of self-hate and avoiding triggering language and behaviour is so important. By working through your own issues and becoming aware of the language we use and the way our society views weight, size and image, we can give our children a much better chance of feeling good about themselves. With positive role models at home and a strong sense of self, our kids will be better able to cope with what they are seeing in the media and on their screens and you’re giving them the best chance of avoiding developing an eating disorder.
Be patient and kind to yourself and try to implement these recommendations – your children will thank you for it.
Seek help if you suspect your child has an eating disorder
Last, but not least, please don’t delay in seeking help if you spot signs of an eating disorder in your child. Sadly, eating disorders are very dangerous and have a very high mortality rate. Teenagers with eating disorders are highly secretive and excellent at hiding their issues, so you may not realise there is a problem until their eating disorder has become very serious and their behaviours are deeply entrenched. Please don’t blame yourself or feel shame, seek help from your GP, a counsellor, or contact an eating disorder treatment centre, specialised in treating these complex conditions.
Residential treatment centres can be very helpful, as they are a safe place to focus on the issue, where intensive treatment is available outside of the home and away from triggering TV programmes, magazines or social media.
At The Bridge, we offer intensive, bespoke, teenage eating disorder treatment in a beautiful villa in Marbella. Here your child will be safe, and treated by kind and understanding, highly trained staff in a family environment. Please contact us if you have any concerns for your child, or if you would like to arrange a body positivity workshop for a group of youngsters in your community.