As with all mental health conditions there is often a correlation between the parents mental health and that of their children.
Parenting is by far the biggest influence on children’s development and the pressure we feel as parents is immense! For those of us who are, or who have suffered a MH illness, that pressure can feel overwhelming. Parenting is already loaded with feelings of guilt so the idea that our behaviour may cause our child/children to develop any mental health disorder is unbearable.
When it comes to our children’s relationship with food we have a big part to play. Up until they are teenagers we are entirely responsible for their diet. Promoting a nutritional diet must start at a very early age and that in itself can be a real challenge! I remember spending hours creating pots of blitzed mixed veg and meat only for my 6 month old to chose pre jarred baby food. Creating suitable meals only for them to turn their nose up and demand a cheese sandwich.
Although I was no longer suffering with anorexia the idea that my child would be a fussy eater filled me with dread! Of course in a perverse way I wanted them to love their food and the meals I had lovingly prepared! Of course I know that loving food does not defend from ED, on the contrary, but those were my thoughts!
As my children grew I was told my daughter was too small and that my son was too big! My son eating everything in sight and my daughter being somewhat more discerning! I small panic rose inside me, is there something wrong with the way I’m feeding my kids???
I persevered with my desire to make sure the food I gave my children was nutritious in the hope their size would even out as they grew and sure enough it did! As my daughter approached puberty the fear increased. She would talk about getting fat, and take the fat off her meat (something I’d do in ED). She would show me tik toks of beautiful slim girls who were her role models, meanwhile she’d look at my body with objection!
I would have conversations with other mums who would talk openly about feeling fat and dieting in front of their kids and it would make me wince! That is one thing I’m determined not to do.
I am hyper sensitive to the tell tell signs of ED but, of course, they are also the signs of puberty so it’s difficult to know what’s normal and what isn’t; especially as my ED starting developing at around 12 years old and by the time I was 15 I was in residential treatment! My relationship with food was already broken, so trying to establish the difference between what is normal teenage behaviour and what is the beginnings of ED is super tricky.
Although my children are not yet aware of my previous illness they are aware of my desire to provide for them the best I can in terms of a healthy lifestyle. I do my best to be that role model and to help them navigate the challenges of growing up in this modern world where it seems perfection is everywhere and so are influences beyond my control.
I am lucky because I am recovered, for those who are trying to protect their kids from ED while still in its clutches, it must be a constant internal battle! Although the research is limited on precisely how to protect our kids from ED there are some great sources of support out there. Mind and Beat are great charities who can offer education and guidance.
For me personally, I would promote the following tips when it comes to protecting our kids from ED:
Promote positive self image by being kind to yourself.
Never talk about dieting in front of your kids.
Get naked (within reason). Yours might be the only “normal” body they see in a sea of photoshopped beauties!
Discuss the importance of a nutritious and varied diet for both physical and brain health. Food is fuel and we should seek the very best.
Let them eat treats. Now I’m one of those “No pudding until you’ve eaten all your dinner” kind of mums. I know people have their own views on that but I do believe it promotes better portion control and reduces food waste (a topic for another time). Pudding is often the incentive to eating all the veg and that’s fine.
Find other ways to reward your kids. Food is often used as a reward but it should not be over used. From my own research this association with food as reward can lead to eating issues later on. Either relying on calorific snacks for our dopamine hit, or feeling like we are punishing ourselves by saying no to such things.
Seek support if you are struggling and/or you think your child might be developing an eating disorder.
Despite the severe health impact of ED it is a still a subject we know little about how best to treat. On average it takes 3 years before ED is even identified as the disorder suffered by a person. Three years is a hugely significant period of time in the developing brain of a young person. The most common age bracket during which ED develops is between 15 and 25. Our brains only fully develop at around 24. Much more research is required if we are to protect our children and young people from developing ED.