If you’re a mother or father worried about the possibility that your daughter can develop an eating disorder, this post is for you.
I started with anorexia when I was 9, and very often that’s when the thoughts start to creep in, which then in pre-teen or teen years turn into a full-blown eating disorder.
Most people think that what must be done is to get girls not to be concerned at all with what they eat or how they look. That they mustn’t care about being fatter or thinner because they have to accept themselves either way. I, on the contrary, don’t believe that’s the best way. Both health and beauty are two totally acceptable concerns, and what parents must do is to accompany their daughters through them in a positive way. How to do it? Those are my guidelines:
(Note: I’m going to use feminine language because this illness is more common in women and because I speak from my own experience. But it applies to sons too).
By being a good example
Be someone your daughter can look up to as a model when it comes to health and being in shape. Many girls with anorexia feel the need to restrict because they’re terrified they might end up as their obese or overweight relatives if they don’t.
Others have lived a bad relationship with food at home since they were little, because one of their parents (usually the mother) was constantly trying fad diets.
If your daughter feels like she can’t look up to you when it comes to these issues, she’ll look up to other people, and many times those will be the personalities who appear on the media. This is very dangerous because in this world they present as healthy and beautiful what’s sick and distorted, and they promote harmful diets to achieve it.
Take care of your body and your health and be an example of the healthy lifestyle habits that one must follow to be as good as you. Make it something your daughter wants to aspire to.
By not disdaining her concerns about her physique
Many parents don’t react well when their daughters tell them their concerns about their body. Some laugh it off, as if it was just silly stuff she has to get out of her head and that’s it. That hurts, because for her it’s important.
Others get straightaway angry, as if it was something illegitimate, something that should never cross a girl’s mind. Many times, precisely out of fear that it might be the beginning of an eating disorder. But there’s no reason to get nervous. It can’t become a taboo topic, because that’s not going to take the concern away; she’s just going to feel like she can’t speak about it at home and, again, will turn to much more dangerous sources. And don’t make her feel vain. She’s already probably struggled to tell you, don’t cause her more guilt.
Both attitudes are a betrayal of her trust in you, and that fuels the secrecy that eating disorders like so much. Then she can start to believe thoughts like “no one understands me”, “my parents are against me”, etc., that lead to “they want me to be fat” and finally to “I have to do something, but in secret”.
Instead, be open to talk. Show interest, ask what has led her to have that concern, what she has planned to do, how she wants you to support her. Explain your vision, suggest better options if you have them, insist that you want to be involved. Make clear that you aren’t her enemy, but you can work together for her to reach her goals and be as happy as possible. If she says irrational or false things, explain why they’re so. And all of this, calmly.
By creating a climate of trust
But, in order to make the previous point possible, first she needs to feel like she can tell you about that kind of things. If she has the experience that you’ve helped and supported her with other intimate or difficult issues, it will be easier for her to open up.
However, if when she tells you things you dismiss them as child stuff, she’ll feel like you don’t take her seriously. If you don’t pay attention to her because you’re too immersed in your own issues, for example by not stopping doing what you’re doing when she comes to tell you something to listen to her with your full attention, she’ll feel like you don’t care. If you scold her when she feels bad or cries, she’ll feel like you don’t understand her.
Make it normal to ask and touch complex issues. Appreciate her contributions to conversations. Create the habit of talking about everything among family without mocking or looking down on attitudes and feelings.
By passing on knowledge
We’re in times of great confusion in the nutrition sphere, about what’s healthy and what isn’t, the properties of different foods, etc. At the same time, most people continue to ignore the most basic and fundamental aspects, such as choosing real food, knowing how to read food labels, keeping a balance of macro and micronutrients, learning to listen to your body signs or portion control.
Educate yourself. Don’t parrot every new fad that appears on the media. Don’t spread myths without judgment. Don’t contribute to that perception that food is something dangerous and complicated, that has to be seen with suspicion and be treated in a strict an obsessive way so it doesn’t harm you or makes you fat. On the contrary, be able to provide sensible principles so no one in your family falls into those traps.
I insist, it’s not about believing that food doesn’t matter, have zero worries and eating without thinking. It’s about being able to make free choices. Eating disorders instill a lot of irrational ideas into us. The fact that someone has proper knowledge might not be enough by itself (since there’s also a great emotional baggage), but it will make it harder for the person to be deceived or tempted. Don’t neglect your duty to educate your children about this.
By using the right language
I’ve spoken at length on this blog about how important it is to watch our words: comments about food you should never make, phrases that are triggering to people with eating disorders, what you should say instead… And it’s worth insisting again. Don’t label food as good or bad, don’t say that one meal is going to make you fat, don’t speak about exercise as a punishment to burn the calories you’ve eaten. Don’t say you’ve been good or bad depending on what you’ve eaten.
By respecting that everybody and every body is different
Don’t teach her to finish her plate under threat of punishment, but to know the signs her body sends. Don’t force her to follow a certain pattern of meal distribution (3 meals a day? 6?), but invite her to see which one feels better for her. Don’t make her eat everything, but just make sure she has a nutritional balance, that she eats all the food groups for the macro and micronutrients she needs. Don’t think that if you give her the freedom she’s just going to eat sugary desserts and such; the solution to that is simply to not have those products at home, to buy them only exceptionally.
It’s obvious that you can’t cook different meals for each person at home. But you must invite them as much as possible to know themselves and honor their physical individualities. Most people are completely disconnected from the signs and needs of their body, eat whatever by force of habit or eat what a diet dictates them. And that’s why they end up with nutritional problems and disordered eating, and have to learn later to get in touch with themselves. Teach them these skills from the early years.
By enjoying food and exercise together
Include your children at the kitchen from when they’re little, and do some form of exercise all together. That will make them see health issues as something normal, fun and social. Something good and familiar. Create a healthy environment, where food and exercise are seen as important things, but that are lived out with peace and joy. It’s about going deep in the first point; being an example, but not a distant one: being also a teacher, someone that takes them by the hand to enter good habits.
By looking to God
The message I always seek to convey through my blog is that we need to learn to take care of our body the same way God takes care of our soul. With love. With respect. With discipline too. Searching its good. Knowing that we’re all different. The disorder between soul and body that damages our society so much comes from a previous and most serious disorder between the soul and God. We need to take back the Augustinian God-soul-body order. Our soul can’t order our body if she isn’t ordered towards God.
So look to Him. Look the dignity He’s given to you, He’s given to your children, He’s given to your daughter. How He’s formed her soul and her body. How He’s wanted to come dwell there. How He’s entrusted to her that part of His Creation so she takes care of it and works on it following His will, and for His greater glory, which thanks to His immense goodness is also our maximum happiness. Remember that the body is neither bad or the center. It’s a privileged instrument in our path to holiness, to fulfill our duties in life. Convey all these truths from a place of love.
If you haven’t been doing these things until now, don’t worry, it’s the perfect moment to start doing them, and it can be so beautiful to build that environment with the efforts of all the family members. The changes will be positive for everyone, but especially for those who are more inclined towards body image problems, diet culture alienation or lack of control around food. Make your home a safe place where you promote a healthy development of the body and soul of everyone.
Do you need help to implement this advice? To treat your own disordered eating? Do you already have a child suffering from an eating disorder? Don’t hesitate to contact me. You’re not alone.