Helping Your Child in Their Eating Disorder Journey: Lead by Example

Apr 12, 2024

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Each child needs to choose recovery for themselves. However, when they are undernourished, they often don’t have the capacity to do this themselves — which is why they need you to choose it for them. ¹

Your child needs someone they trust to lead the way and maybe even “carry” them when they aren’t strong enough to “walk” on their own. To help your child, it is extremely important that you work through your own struggles with body image and diet culture to lead as a positive example.

The Importance of a Healthy Body Image and Self-Identity in Your Child’s Recovery

Those with eating disorders struggle with body image and their relationship with food.

Imagine how it would feel for your child if you told them it’s important not to listen to the eating disorder’s food rules when you’re actively engaging in disordered habits yourself. Or if you told them that the number on the scale isn’t important when you’re speaking negatively about your body. That would just reinforce what the eating disorder thinks and can make recovery all the more difficult for your child.

Your worth, value, or success is not based on what or how you eat or what you look like. No one’s is. You would never tell your child their worthiness is based on what they eat or how their body looks. However, diet culture has convinced many of us that this is where our value lies. As a result, we’ve developed a negative body image and rule-based relationship with food.

Repairing your relationship with food and your own body to have a healthy self-identity is essential to be a positive example for your child in their recovery journey. ²

What a Healthy Body Image Looks Like

A healthy relationship with food and our bodies is one that is intuitive and defies diet culture.

This includes:

    • Accepting all food is neutral: Not labeling foods as good or bad.
    • No rules: Putting aside “shoulds” and “should nots,” not setting specific times we can or cannot eat, listening to our body’s hunger cues, and fueling it with the nutrients it needs.
    • Eating a variety: Knowing that different carbs, proteins, and fats are essential and have a place in a balanced diet.
    • Consuming all foods in moderation: Knowing all different kinds of foods have a place in our diets. Embracing food freedom and enjoying variety.
    • Honoring hunger and fullness and eating intuitively vs. measuring, counting calories, or restricting: Our bodies are designed to tell us what they need and when. Leaning on those hunger cues instead of tracking everything we eat helps us honor our bodies.
  • Practicing flexibility with eating: Knowing that food is not black-and-white and that eating may look different on different days or seasons.
  • Accepting body diversity: While diet culture, social media, and society may make us think there’s one specific body type that is ideal, acknowledging and appreciating that our bodies come in different shapes and sizes helps us be more comfortable existing as we are.
  • Practicing body kindness: Being body positive — when we say only positive things about our body — can feel difficult, particularly when we really have a negative body image. For those who can lean into it, it can be extremely effective! However, others may prefer body neutrality, when we focus on our bodies’ functions and all they can do for us, rather than on their appearance.

How To Repair Your Relationship With Food

It’s not uncommon for people to have a difficult relationship with food — even if they do not have an eating disorder. Especially in a society immersed in diet culture, it can feel anything but natural to try to repair our relationship with food — especially if we have habits, behaviors, or beliefs that have existed for years.

However, taking steps to heal your relationship with food can be immensely helpful in your child’s recovery — and, of course, can benefit you, too!

Steps To Create a Healthy Relationship With Food and Your Body

As you guide your child through recovery, learning more about your relationship with your body and food can help you better guide them through their difficulties in their recovery journey.

Here are a few ways to learn more about your relationship with food and your body and build a healthier foundation.

Evaluate Your Relationship With Food and Your Body

Take some time to reflect on these relationships throughout your life. Ask yourself how people close to you felt about food, when you felt neutral toward food, and how you currently feel about food and your body.

Discover Your Values

What is most important to you? Is it family? Health? Humor?

Taking some time to reflect on your values, you may realize that living a life of restriction and food rules is not in line with what you truly care about. But helping your child recover and living as a happy family is. Take time to reflect on those values and see what you can do to live more in line with them.

Practice Self-Compassion

As you reflect, you may realize that you’ve unintentionally done things that weren’t kind to your mind or body or may have reinforced your child’s eating disorder thoughts. Give yourself grace, and know you can do better for yourself and your child going forward!

Commit To Stop Dieting

You can’t expect your child to eat intuitively when you’re not setting that same example. Make it a priority to ensure diet culture does not have a seat at the table in your home.

Learn To Trust Your Body

Our bodies are designed to tell us exactly what we need. Learning to get back in touch with hunger cues, honor cravings, and drop the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that come with food rules can help us live more intuitively.

Practice Body Acceptance

Know that it’s society and diet culture, not our inherent nature as human beings, that makes us feel less than in our bodies. Practice gratitude for all the things your body does for you, and know that it’s okay for all body types to exist as they are!

The “Recipe” To Repair Your Relationship With Food

When working to improve your relationship with food, you can use a “recipe” with 5 ingredients.

  • Reject: Identify diet-culture-centered and disordered messages — whether internal or external. Remind yourself that they are not helpful or what a healthy, intuitive relationship with food would look like.
  • Reframe: When you identify an unhelpful thought, remind yourself that all food is neutral and all food is fuel. Use more neutral or positive statements to reframe the thought.
  • Remove Rules: Food cannot be morally “good” or “bad.” You deserve to eat whenever you’re hungry and to honor your body. Identify any “rules” surrounding what you can eat and when, and work to break those rules as you listen to your body!
  • Rebel: Practice pushing back against any disordered or diet-culture-centered thoughts by doing the opposite of what the urge or rule would want you to do.
  • Repeat — Reinforce: Repeatedly grant yourself permission to break any unhelpful habits and form new behaviors. With time and practice, this will become the new normal.

Cultivating a Healthy Body Image to Guide Eating Disorder Recovery for Your Child

Having a healthy body image and a good relationship with food is critical in your child’s recovery.

It’s not your fault for living in a society that’s full of unhelpful messages about how we should eat and how our bodies should look. However, it is your responsibility to be the best role model you can be as you guide your child’s journey.

While it can be difficult at first, remind yourself that cultivating new mindsets and more helpful eating habits are only positive for your child and your own well-being!

 

Citations

 

  1. Muhlheim, Lauren. 2018. In When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating, 21, 24-25. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications.
  2. Muhlheim When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder, 54.

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