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  • Sara

How Parents May be Unintentionally Promoting Disordered Eating Habits

As soon as we are born we look to our parents for comfort and safety. Our parents have the most impact on our early life. Our parents care for us, nurture us, teach us life skills, and much more. As a child, our brains are easily impacted by the actions and words around us. This is referred to as modeling, and children internalize modeling mostly from their primary caregivers.

When our parents use certain language or create certain habits it can stick with us. If these things are negative, even if unintentionally so, they can have a damaging effect. Some examples of negative internalization include overly strict rules, exceptionally high expectations, and an unhealthy relationship with food, substances, exercise, etc.

The way a person’s parents talked about eating and nutrition when they were a child could have had a major impact on their eating habits later on in life. While most men are not as easily affected by negative body and food talk as children, girls are greatly affected by their mother’s perception of her own relationship with food and self-image.

Even if one’s mother wasn’t calling them fat or telling them to lose weight, if she was constantly talking negatively about her own body and dieting, this could have been influential. I’ve personally seen some parents leave fake models of body fat on top of cookie jars and handwritten notes on the refrigerator door asking, “Are you really that hungry?” While this didn’t happen in my own childhood home, it did at friends’ homes. Thus, we also internalize ideas about body image from others we are close to outside of the home.

Mothers, in particular, are usually figures that girls look up to and seek out information from early on about life. Other forms of modeling from mom that have become normalized as gender-role specific including the idea that women should cook and clean, stay home, help children with their homework and provide transportation to activities. When one thinks of a “homemaker,” typically an image of a female emerges rather than a male. Then, of course, there is the infamous “soccer mom.” Gender-role specific modeling from men generally includes financial support, protection and the ability to fix things around the home. Again, when one imagines a “handyman,” or a “businessman,” naturally an image of a male emerges. These are roles assigned by society and while there are some exceptions and there’ve been some shifts to this over the years, they largely still exist.

When considering a mother’s perception of body image, if she was constantly using negative self-talk or experiencing disordered eating then a female child could be more at risk to pick up these habits as a teenager or young adult. Of course, the effects of this modeling aren’t exclusive to girls – boys can internalize them, too. It’s just more common for girls to do so.

Another huge early influence on body image is the media. So, if mom had subscribed to health and fitness and/or high fashion magazines that her children had access to, these could be primary sources of developing body-specific expectations. If dad or big brother hung up posters or calendars of ideal women on the walls, this could have been influential as well.

Now, if your parents talked about your body or food in a negative way directly to you, this would have had even more of an effect on your relationship with food as you matured. If your parents called you fat or constantly talked about what you were eating, then you most likely started to constantly worry about the food you consumed and how it would affect your body.

Another harmful habit is labeling foods as “good” and “bad” and restricting when you could and couldn’t eat as a child. When parents label food as “good” and “bad,” it doesn’t teach their children portion control or how to moderately consume certain foods that may not be as healthy as others. This may cause children to sneak the “bad” food or binge eat instead.

Teaching children that some foods are “bad” and that they can’t eat them will just make them want them more. Also, teaching children they can only eat three meals a day, have one snack in between lunch and dinner, only eat dinner at 5pm or that they must consume breakfast before school doesn’t allow them to learn how to listen to their hunger cues, which can be detrimental.

Eating disorders have many environmental and genetic causes, but how you were raised can have a large impact on your eating habits and body image as you grow older. If you are a parent, be aware of how you talk about your body and food around your children because it has more of an impact then you might think. If you are someone who learned negative habits from your parents as a child, realize you have the power to change things, as well as your mindset, to live a happier and healthier life.


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