When a young person develops an eating disorder, it’s never the fault of the parents. Eating disorders have many complex causes and most likely develop from a combination of genetics, personality traits, early life experiences, social and media pressures, and other factors.
At the same time, parents’ relationship with food can and does affect the way that children eat, value themselves, and think about their bodies and weight. Rules about food at home, negative feelings at meal times, and concerns about children’s weight can make it more likely that young people develop negative feelings about food. If unaddressed, these practices and attitudes can also make a young person’s recovery more difficult.
For mums and dads who have eating problems themselves, creating a healthy atmosphere at home isn’t easy. Many parents with eating disorders are worried about the effect their behaviours have on their children but may find it difficult to change them. That’s why it’s important to seek support. With professional help, parents can begin to heal from their own traumas while learning how to build a nourishing home environment for their children.
How Does Parenting Affect Young People’s Relationship with Food?
We all understand that children resemble their parents – in appearance, personality, and behaviours. Most of the time this is a positive, beautiful thing – but occasionally it means that challenging or harmful behaviours can also be transferred from one generation to the next.
Parents’ behaviours can be transferred to their children in many different ways. Some of these are genetic and others environmental. Importantly, children can be directly influenced by their parent’s actions, words, and attitudes.
Research has suggested that some eating behaviours and attitudes of parents may make it more likely that children will develop eating problems. Mealtimes can become times of conflict and parents may find it difficult to know how much food to offer their children. Parents with eating problems may also avoid social situations with their children where food can be involved. These experiences may make young people more likely to see eating as something difficult or something that should be done in secret and could lead to feelings of shame about eating.
In some cases, families may see a kind of role reversal between a child and their parent. Young people may want to help their mum or dad with their eating problems and tell their parents that they should eat. While often parents try hard to keep their children away from their issues, in some cases it’s left to young people to set boundaries and explain that they don’t want to be involved in their parent’s relationship with food.
How Do Parents’ Concerns About Shape and Weight Impact Young People?
Individuals with eating problems often value themselves on their shape or weight. Sometimes, these thoughts and feelings can be taken on by other people in the family.
In some cases, children might notice that their parents place importance on body shape and size and begin to value it themselves. In other cases, parents’ concerns about their own shape and weight can apply to their children too, and they may worry or think about a young person’s body size.
Young people may take on these concerns, both by placing value on their bodies and by developing feelings of body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. Parents’ concerns about their children’s weight may also encourage children to eat in secret – especially if they are trying to avoid certain food rules implemented by their parents.
While people used to think that young children were free from concerns about shape and weight – and that these attitudes developed during adolescence – research has shown something different. Studies have found that some children as young as nine have a desire to be thin and restrict their eating to reach these aims. They’ve also found a significant relationship between the dieting concerns of children and their mothers.
How Can Parents Build a Healthy Home Environment for Their Children?
When parents are living with undiagnosed eating disorders or eating problems – or have inadequate support – it can be difficult to build a home environment of healthy eating habits and attitudes. Even when parents understand which behaviours are helpful and which may be harmful, it’s often hard to put this into practice, especially when these actions collide with deep-rooted emotions, thoughts, and feelings.
For parents who have a difficult relationship with food, the best thing to do is to seek support. Parents’ eating problems can take many forms: they may be overly concerned about their shape and weight, follow food rules, find eating with their children difficult, or worry about their child’s weight.
However eating problems express themselves, professional support can help parents to identify any harmful behaviours and replace them with positive ones, developing strategies to support the process. At the same time, experts can help parents address the underlying causes of their own eating problems, helping them to develop a healthy relationship with food that they can model for their children.
Some interventions for parents include:
- Family therapy
- Individual therapy, including cognitive-behavioural therapy
General Dos and Donts
Some general tips for encouraging children to have a healthy relationship with food include:
- Talk about how different body types should be accepted and appreciated
- Let your child decide when they are full
- Speak about the risks of dieting
- Show your child that you love them for who they are
- Labelling certain foods as good or bad
- Using food as a punishment or a reward
- Make comments about the weight or body shape of yourself, your child, or anyone else
- Compliment your child about how they look – try to value their personality instead
- Discuss measurements, weights, or clothing sizes with others
The Wave Clinic: Transformative, Lasting Recovery for Young People and Their Families
The Wave Clinic offers transformative recovery programs for young people, supporting them to plan and build better futures. Our whole-person approach emphasises full recovery and lasting change, helping teenagers and adolescents to reconnect with themselves and grow in self-esteem. Our trauma-focused programs combine exceptional clinical care with education, social responsibility, and a gap year experience, offering young people the chance to build enriching relationships with others as they develop the skills they need to follow their dreams.
We understand the importance of family in a young person’s recovery journey. Through family therapy and other modules, we work with parents and other loved ones to develop positive interpersonal relationships at home and create an environment that supports their young person’s recovery. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of young people and their families.
If you’d like to find out more about our programs, contact us today. We’re here to help.