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Parenting with an Eating Disorder

By Kia Wakefield

Children are impressionable, and spend much of their early years learning from the behaviors of others. Obviously, parents are a particularly strong influence on children.

Because children learn by imitation, they can be placed at significant risk when their parent is suffering from an eating disorder.

Children learn from their parents how to eat, what to eat, and how to properly care for their body. The parents play a significant role in the foods that their child eats as well as the amount of self-control that they have when they eat. Parents with eating disorders can pass on flawed and potentially dangerous habits to their developing child.

Children notice a lot - such as when their parents are not eating much or when their parents are exercising excessively. They also understand when their parents make food a ritual or a form of comfort.

Eating disorders are illnesses, and when one family member is affected, the entire family is affected. Eating disorders can become legacies that are passed from one generation to the next. Fortunately, there are things that parents can do to break the cycle.

Moms at Risk

Pregnant women and new mothers can develop eating disorders. Once the baby is born, some new mothers feel as if they have lost their sense of control. For example, mothers are not always able to make their child sleep through the night, and it also may be difficult for the mother to express how exhausted or stressed she feels.

When this occurs, some new mothers may engage in dangerous methods - including disordered eating - in order to regain a sense of control. Overworked and extremely busy moms may also feel the same way. Mothers who are attempting to be a perfect as a parent, a wife, and a career woman find that they feel overwhelmed and improperly handle their emotions through an eating disorder. 

Not every mother translates the challenges of her daily life into an eating disorder, but this can happen.

Anorexic mothers, in particular, pose a definite risk to the dietary health of their children. Children who have anorexic mothers often display restricted eating patterns and are at a greater risk for developing depression. Children who are mimicking what their parents are doing can develop unhealthy eating rituals.

Parents play such an incredibly important role because they define what is normal and what is not. For this reason, it is critically important that parents pass on healthy eating habits to their children.

Eating Disorder Treatment

According to psychologist Gunborg Palme, there are certain things that parents can do to decrease the likelihood that their child will get an eating disorder.

  • First, parents have to help their children develop a proper appreciation for hunger. This means that they should only give their children food when they are actually hungry.
  • Food (or the lack thereof) should never be used as a reward or punishment.
  • Parents should not compel their child to eat more if the child is full.
  • Parents should be aware that the foundation for an eating disorder can take shape as early as the first year of a child's life.

Some parents choose to suffer in silence with an eating disorder because family growth and other priorities take precedence over getting treatment. When this happens, the parent's recovery needs take a backseat.

This is not a healthy approach.

Parents who are struggling with an eating disorder need to get help for their problem.  In the process, they need to help their children develop a clear understanding of why the eating disorder is unhealthy and how it can be fixed. This approach can provide children with positive problem-solving lessons that can be applied to the challenges that they will encounter throughout their lives.

Parents who are struggling with unresolved body image concerns and other eating disorders must get proper treatment for their problems. This reduces the risk that a parent will pass on disturbing attitudes and behaviors to their children. If a parent is careful, they can prevent their child from falling into the same dangerous behaviors and beliefs.

© 2013 Teen Eating Disorders | Last Updated: Mar 09, 2013
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