How to Talk with Kids about Eating Disorders

Collage piece, circa 1998

Inside and outside of school, there are many pressures on children and teenagers to look or act a certain way. It’s hard to be aware of, and control, what they are exposed to – whether on social media or in their friend groups- but here’s a question & answer guide to facilitate conversations with your child.

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  1. Why is it important to talk to your child about eating disorders?

It is important to talk with your child about eating disorders as a precautionary measure. It will help them build awareness of their own eating habits and to notice if it starts to swing into disordered eating. They may be able to help identify peers or friends who may also need help.

  1. Should you have these conversations only if you’re concerned or just in general? Why or Why not?

There are two sides to this. By starting a conversation and saying that sometimes people starve themselves, over-exercise, or purge in order to look a certain way, a child may pick up on that as a valid way to change the way they look. Conversely, the conversation, including the detriments of eating disorders (e.g. on dental, bone, reproductive, or psychological health – even the risk of death) may help them stay on a healthier path with their eating.

  1. Some parents may be concerned that talking about eating disorders will put the idea in their head or make a situation worse? Is that a legitimate concern?

[See above]. For some children, it can plant a seed in their minds to try unhealthy eating behaviors in order to lose weight. A child, depending on age and disposition, may also rebel against the parents by doing the opposite of what they suggest and become entrenched, or further entrenched, in disordered eating. It would be very appropriate, and perhaps necessary, to bring in a more neutral third party, perhaps a therapist or registered dietitian, to educate the child about disordered eating and its effects.

  1. Should parents talk about how to approach eating from a healthy place or give any advice?

It’s always best for parents to model healthy eating. I’ve heard too many stories from my clients about how their disordered eating started because their mom was on a diet and always talked about how “fat” she was or how dad would eat “whatever he wanted” and then run it off. Children model after and emulate their parents, for better or worse. Talking about eating from a healthy, positive place can definitely help. If the child is open to advice, you can offer it, but I would suggest letting them ask questions to get engaged in the conversation, versus delivering a lecture.

  1. What should parents know about talking about eating disorders?

Just like other topics – including sex education, personal finance, healthy relationships – it’s likely to be an ever-evolving conversation, not a one-and-done deal. Making the child feel safe, by being approachable and providing support, is probably the most important factor in getting them to trust you and participate in these important conversations. Pull in an expert for questions you don’t know the answers to or for a more neutral, objective advisor to counsel your child on their feelings, the way they eat, and more.

  1. How do they start a conversation in an age appropriate way?

Most parents are aware of their child’s maturity level and understanding of various topics. Meet them where they are. Just as you wouldn’t give a five year old child a blow-by-blow account of what happens during a birth, explaining the tax benefits of a Roth IRA, or explaining narcissitic or borderline personalities when talking about building friendships in kindergarten, you’d want to match their level of understanding by simplifying the conversation and making it appropriate to what they need to know at this stage of their development.

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What to do the Day After: Overindulgence

photo source: parentingteensmag.com

With spring break season in full swing, many people are making their way to warmer destinations. Traveling can be an adventurous and exciting time, but can also throw off your normal eating habits. Remember that it’s okay to indulge every once in a while and not to panic. If a chocolate cake is part of the celebration and you wish to eat some, enjoy it without shame. Be mindful as you chew and taste the flavors in each bite.

What should you do if you find yourself waking up feeling not-so-great because of overindulging the day before? Get back to your normal eating patterns. Accept that it happened and don’t starve your body of what it needs now. Feed yourself the premium fuel it needs to function; let go and forgive yourself for yesterday’s food or drink binge. We all have those days and it’s okay to indulge every now and then- in fact, it can help us keep balance!

Next time this happens, instead of feeling guilty and depriving yourself to ‘make up for it’ – accept it, do your best, and keep moving along your healthy path.