How Your Eating Disorder Affects Your Child
By Kathleen Birmingham
Mothers are the epitome of nourishment and nurturing care. From the moment of birth, a child looks to its mother for comfort and its basic needs - food and love.
Those needs may be affected, however, if the mother struggles with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia. When a mother’s eating disorder begins to affect her child is when things can change permanently. A child’s upbringing will determine behavior for the remainder of his or her life.
Consider what it means to your child, no matter how young, when you say, “Why are you eating another cookie? Do you want to get fat?” Logically, the answer is, “No. I just want another cookie.”
What happens, however, is that now that mommy has brought up this issue, the child begins to wonder why a cookie makes one fat. The child certainly knows now that fat is bad, because of the way mommy’s eyes flashed and the tone of her voice. But how can something that tastes so good be so bad? These are questions that a child really cannot understand.
I talked with a female friend of mine who remembered an incident when she was about 9 years old. She wasn’t fat (pictures from that time prove that). She remembers that her mother made a really wonderful dinner one night and covered it with the most delicious gravy. My friend wanted more of that gravy because it tasted really good.
From most of her other memories, food was relatively scarce, so having a good dinner with gravy was unusual. When she filled up her plate again with the gravy-covered meal, her mother said, “If you keep eating gravy like that, you’ll become as big as a house.”
That is all it took!
From the time she was 9 years old, my friend began to look at food with distrust and fear. No one wanted to be as big as a house. By the age of 11, she was severely restricting food, and by 15, she was admitted for in-house eating disorder treatment. Today, she still struggles with her anorexia, and she never forgot the trigger.
It turns out my friend’s mother had struggled all her life with being overweight, and she didn’t want her children to suffer the same fate. She probably didn’t realize that the alternative was anorexia.
The lesson there? Be careful what you say to your kids.
Children as Mirrors
Just ask any parent: your kids mimic everything you say and do. Sometimes this is pretty funny. Other times, you have to ask yourself, “Do I really do that?”
Mothers will often only be talking to themselves, but will say, “I really shouldn’t eat that, I’ve had more than enough already.” This statement seems innocuous enough, but it isn’t. Kids are eternally wondering about things and they will wonder why you shouldn’t eat that. And their reasoning is, “If mommy shouldn’t eat that, maybe I shouldn’t either.”
If you have an eating disorder, your children will pick up on your sense of self-hatred, loathing and guilt (even if you don’t verbalize them). They hear you every time you say, “It’s time for me to lose some weight.” Your obsession will become your child’s obsession. Even if it does not lead to a full-blown eating disorder, it will lead to a lifetime of obsession, robbing them of their time, energy, vision and their very joy of life.
Think about it: What does taking out a loan for a tummy tuck or liposuction say to your children?
Fear of Fat Supersedes all Other Fears
A recent study indicated that women with eating disorders fear being fat more than they fear anything else. They would rather be mean, ugly and unpopular rather than be fat. They would rather be run over by a train or a car than be fat. In some instances, they would rather die of cancer than be fat.
I know of one woman who was diagnosed with cancer that was likely terminal. While she was in the hospital, the staff encouraged her to order milkshakes to try to help her maintain her weight. She refused. Her fear of becoming fat actually scared her more than dying of her cancer.
She refused to order high-fat foods because she knew she wouldn’t eat them, but that one of her daughters might and end up “fat.” As she lay dying, she was more worried that her very thin daughters would get fat than about her own health.
Babies Don’t Have Eating Disorders
Your children were not born with eating disorders. That is strictly a learned behavior. And it can happen in the blink of an eye.
Don’t teach your children to view the world based on how they feel about the shape of their body. You can feel frustrated with your body and yet still feel fabulous about your career, relationship, talents and intellect. Be sure to stress that with your children.
Do not teach your children that being overweight means being unhappy. People are busy enough without adding the full-time job of worrying about weight and body image. It leads to a decreased quality of life.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, the best way to make sure it doesn’t affect your children is to seek bulimia or anorexia treatment. Let your children be the excuse you need to finally end your eating disorder and become a positive role model for healthy eating, positive body image and a good relationship with food.