Talking with your child about disordered eating habits

by Gary Gilles

body image distortion_Fotolia_27184108_XSFood, weight and body image can be difficult subjects for many people to talk about. But, when the person in question is your child, it takes a sensitive and tactful approach to keep the conversation from shutting down or turning into an argument. How you talk with your child largely depends on the specific behaviors that you observe. As a starting point, it is important to be clear on the difference between disordered eating habits and eating disorders.

Is it disordered eating habits or an eating disorder?

You might have thought that eating disorders are a type of disordered eating. If so, you would be right. Diagnosable eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are clear indicators that there is an eating-related problem and some of these problems can lead to serious health problems, even death. But eating disorders are considered the extreme form of disordered eating behavior. Only about 1-3% of the general population has a diagnosable eating disorder.

In contrast, disordered eating habits describe a wide range of irregular or potentially unhealthy eating behaviors that cause a person to spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on food, weight and body image. Common symptoms of disordered eating include:

  • Obsessive calorie counting or preoccupation with dieting
  • Anxiety about certain foods or food groups
  • Satisfaction with self that is highly dependent upon body shape or weight
  • Excessive or inflexible exercise routine
  • A rigid approach to eating (only eating certain foods, inflexible meal times)
  • Frequent fasting or skipping of meals
  • Use of diet pills or laxatives to control food intake

Though some of these behaviors might also be present in a full-blown eating disorder, the severity of the symptom is less in disordered eating. But, that does not mean disordered eating habits are harmless or can’t turn into an eating disorder. In fact, most eating disorders begin with disordered eating habits that eventually get taken to extremes.

A bigger problem than most realize

People with disordered eating habits comprise a much larger percentage of the general population. Some studies suggest that up to half of the population have problematic habits with how they eat. This includes various ways to restrict food intake, regular overconsumption and using food to cope with stress. Young people are especially prone to disordered eating patterns because they are faced with many pressures from parents, school, peers, and the larger culture and turn to or away from food to help them cope with the stress.

Disordered eating is also not easy to spot. It is often hidden behind all sorts of legitimate lifestyle and health choices such as vegetarianism, veganism, gluten-free, extreme sport participation, colon-cleansing, organic-only food, etc. It is often difficult to determine whether a person is simply very committed to their health and food choices or whether these choices reflect disordered eating habits.

Talking to your child about eating patterns

If you suspect that your son or daughter has some disordered eating habits, here are five effective ways you can begin to talk to them about your concerns:

  1. Focus on feelings and not food. Disordered eating is usually driven by emotion more than food choices. Too often, parents become the food police and try to correct the eating behavior without realizing that the root issue is the emotion. Helping your child to make sense of their feelings can often ground them toward healthier choices. Ask questions about how they are feeling. Listen carefully for emotion, such as fear, sadness, feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
  2. Offer empathy not advice. Your best route to getting your child to talk is through empathy not advice giving. Though it is tempting to offer sage advice from your years of life, your child most needs to know that you care about them and their inner life. Empathy is a great way to do this. It helps connect you emotionally to your child. Empathy is simply validating what your child is feeling without any judgment or countering. For example, if your daughter tells you she’s not eating much these days because she’s under so much stress from school, you could say: “That sounds like a very difficult burden to carry. How does eating less help you to cope with the stress?”
  3. Ask direct but sensitive questions to learn more. Young people can handle direct questions if they are worded in a sensitive, non-threatening way. For example, you might say, “I’ve noticed lately that you have been making some negative comments about your body and your weight. Have you noticed this? How do you feel about yourself right now?”
  4. Instill value to promote self-esteem. Disordered eating is usually accompanied by a fragile self-esteem. Push against this tendency by looking for genuine opportunities to affirm your child’s worth. Focus your affirmations on their talents, morals and character. Be specific and genuine in your praise. At the same time, be careful in talking about their appearance, even when complimenting them.
  5. Avoid threats, ultimatums or shaming behavior. When your best efforts fall short it can leave you feeling helpless. Some parents respond to that feeling of helplessness by using threats, ultimatums and shame with their child as a way to make their point and get compliance. But, these power tactics almost always backfire and make future communication even more difficult because your child has erected a protective wall around themselves.

In addition to these suggestions, it might also help to explore your own attitudes about food, weight and body image. How you think about food and your body may have relevance to what your child is experiencing. Regardless, just remember that your child does want to talk with you about issues, like disorder eating, that concern them. The key to unlocking that conversation is how you approach them. Keep practicing until the key fits the lock.

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