Thursday, February 07, 2008

Raising an E.D.-Free Little Girl

An old college friend and I recently caught up at another friend's celebration. She expressed interest in my life (and I hers) and then, around midnight, she asked, "So, how do I raise my daughter so that she doesn't develop an eating disorder?" One of my occupational hazards--being asked to provide meaningful psychological commentary in a social situation, second only to the "Are you analyzing me?" concern. . .

And, here, to the best of my recollection, appears my short, adlib list, dedicated to my old friend's adorable toddler, but applicable to all of our little girls:

1) Throw out your scale.
2) Talk about foods with regard to how they can nourish her body, rather than their effects on her weight.
3) Encourage physical activity for the sake of health, rather than weight control.
4) Don't judge your body in front of her--don't say negative things about your body or even glance in the mirror in a critical way.
5) Focus on all of her strengths outside of her body, but make it a point to tell her how beautiful she is.

Any others you'd like to add?


Nicole said...

I need my scale, so I'm just opting not to have children.

PalmTreeChick said...

Sounds like good advice!!

Rachel said...

6. Be a good role model for healthy eating and body image;
7. Limit television viewing and for god sakes, don't give her those silly teen magazines inundated with articles on diets and weight-loss;
8. Have realistic expectations - don't promote perfectionism;
9. But do promote the idea of body diversity;
10. Always be aware of signs and symptoms of an eating disorder - they're often best treated when nipped in the bud

RaisinCookies said...

This is a great post. I have two daughters, and raising them to love themselves and avoid even a hint of an eating disorder is a big concern of mine.

You know what makes me feel better, though? I'm already doing everything on your list. Suddenly, I feel like I might win this battle.

I'll keep you posted when they hit their teens. :)

Laura said...

Don't expect too much of them, and help them learn from mistakes rather than simply punishing them.

(My friends with EDs have all had the stereotypical 'pushy parent' thing going on.)

HT said...

I think that a little girl needs to know EXPLICITLY that most of what she hears around her is going to try and make her feel bad about her body, and it's up to her to notice this and if she wants to be happy, she has to resist this.

It's like society is a big bully, trying to make people feel bad about themselves.

Anonymous said...

Don't talk about foods in terms of 'good' and 'bad', and don't make any food out-of-bounds.

Gingembre said...

Don't tease. Never, ever tease a girl about her body. I only just found out that my dad actually thought I was quite active and averagely-sized as a kid and teenager, because he used to joke about thunder thighs and how lazy I was. I am...pissed off.

azusmom said...

Yeah, TV and media are awful for girls' self-image. The other day I was watching a preview for "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and a beautiful, normal-sized girl was asking "Do I look fat?" The teenage cyborg answered "Yes." This was followed by a shot of said cyborg walking around in her bra and panties, showcasing her stick figure with ribs popping out.
So, the regular girl is fat, and we should all strive to look like killer robots. Thanks, Fox!

Laura Collins said...

This is good advice in general, for all families. We should all be doing these things for our girls and our boys.

But I don't believe it will prevent eating disorders. For those with the genes and temperament for an eating disorder all it takes is a diet, a bad flu, cross country season. All the good parenting in the world won't prevent that child from having eating disordered thoughts under those circumstances.

What we can do is be prepared to react with love, with good information, and with speed to signs of an eating disorder starting.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. While sadly there is most likely nothing you can do that will totally prevent an eating disorder, it is great to see some suggestions on how to create an environment where it will be more difficult for one to grow and thrive. I don't have children and I don't plan on it, but I do worry about my darling little cousins and I wonder what I can do to help them.

If I had to add my own advice to the list I would say, never allow your children to feel less than. Don't let them believe that their worth is tied to something subjective (like beauty), but that it comes from something within.

Lindsay said...

Magazines can be hard to avoid. If she comes home with one, go through it with her and point out the hideous amount of photoshopping that's done to each and every picture in there.

Children make great lie detectors. Parents need to provide good role models in the body image regard; basically, this is echoing the "don't say anything bad about yourself", but taking it a step further. Say good things about yourself, and really mean them.

jaed said...

One more thing: if her pediatrician makes comments about her weight in front of her - whether derogatory ("You need to eat less and move more! I divine this from your weight reading!") or congratulatory ("It's great that you've lost ten pounds in a year! I wish all young women took care of themselves like you do!"), switch doctors. Immediately.

And even if it doesn't come up in front of your child, watch the doctor for evidence of disordered ideation around food, exercise levels, or appearance. Health should be the doctor's concern, not weight or looks.

Sarah said...

I would say if at all possible, find physical activity that's just plain fun. I love Jazzercise, which started years ago when my mother brought me with her to classes. My mother never gave me the idea that it was for anything other than jumping about, listening to music and hanging out with other women.

peggynature said...

I'd go you one further and say: focus on how food tastes and makes you feel rather than its effect on weight. And do exercise because it's fun.

emmy. said...

i really appreciate you posting this. i'm in recovery from an eating disorder and all i can think about (even only at 21) is "what steps can i take to prevent my future daughter from the hell i've been through?" you make it sounds so simple.

also, help your children (not just daughters) to understand what your body does for you and how it can't do it without proper nutrition. your brain cannot function without food. you won't be able to think enough to even spell "food" without enough of it!

it seems obvious...but some of us learn this too late.

Sage said...

This seems counterproductive, at first blush, but... Talk about Eating Disorders with the child. Sort of the same as talking about drugs or smoking or alcohol or whatever the lastest PSA is. Talk about what EDs are, what they do to a body, why they're a bad choice, and why they happen in the first place.

Knowing is half the battle, and all that...

PalmTreeChick said...

Coaches also need to be careful what they say to their athletes.

Rivka said...

Don't use food to reward or punish.

Let her eat when she is hungry and stop when she is full.

Present food as the pleasure that it is.

Anonymous said...

Two things have happened recently that made me remember how easy it is to instill disordered eating and thoughts in girls. My daughter spends an hour and 1/2 each week with her grandfather while I have an appointment. This week he was so proud of himself because he has "begun teaching her about calories!" he really felt this was an important lesson - counting calories - for a 5 year old. I forbid him from discussing it with her and then sat down with her and explained that Papa is "old fashioned" and that we used to believe things about food that we now know are not true. Secondly we don't have TV and when she watched an hour of TV at her grandparents she saw several ads for Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, and immediately began thinking she needed to lose weight, in an almost fun, "this is what ladies do" sort of way. When most adults cannot discriminate the truth from the ads they see, how can we expect kids to? The ads existence gives them credence as children trust the adult world to be what is "right" and what is expected. I believe children must be shielded from anti-fat advertisements and shows most of all. We simply cannot expect to "just explain it to them" and expect the weight loss message not to stick.

Laina said...

Some more:

Encourage physical activity because playing games and sports is FUN! I feel that encouraging physical activity because it's good for you sends a more negative message. If she grows up associating physical activity with time spent playing with friends, she might have a more positive relationship with wellness.

If you don't want to limit her TV time, encourage her to watch shows that aren't about thin women being happy (thin-women shows include: sitcoms, teenager shows, OC-type shows). While I was growing up, I was encouraged to watch Animal Planet, TLC, and The Discovery Channel (I turned out to be a wonderfully happy nerd, although this didn't exactly stop me from having body dysmorphia... I do think it helped me become a more well-rounded individual), and for every hour that I watched those channels I was allowed an hour of "regular kid TV"

As she is growing up, act as though there is no weight and body-image problem in the world (until she realizes that there is) so that she becomes less brainwashed than she potentially could be.

Let her explore any of her talents and interests, whether that's sports, math, reading, writing, art, music, anything! Let her grow up with the assumption that she can do whatever fulfills her, and that she doesn't have to be good at everything (and that she doesn't have to be good at what you're good at)

The most important advice is to be a good role model. Don't wear clothes because they make you look thinner, don't comment on how you may or may not have put on weight, don't fuss about your image, and BE HAPPY!

dana said...

There is a great article, "Mothers as Eating Role Models for Their Daughters" in the September 2007 Today's Dietition about this subject, here is a link...

Anonymous said...

I think restrict TV viewing, but also be sure to teach them how to view images on TV critically. Like for example, what ads really are saying. To be able to understand the motive of the advertiser, and that they may not have your best interest in mind.

I'm just saying this, cause I live in IL. Right now it's about 3 feet of snow outside, and there is little else to do but watch TV. So I'm just saying. I guess you could always make sure they have kiddy DVDs to watch. Which reminds me, I wanted to watch Ratatoullie again.

Anonymous said...

I'm just coming to terms with the fact that the eating habits I learned as a child were disordered, and I really, really hope the advice in your post and in the comments gets out more broadly. I wish I'd had the chance to grow up in a household that abided by these rules.

Lindsay said...

I would amend #5, "Focus on all her strengths outside her body, but make it a point to tell her how beautiful she is," to include a sense that a woman's body is for more than just looking good. If you have an athletic daughter, encourage her in her chosen sport, praise her on the things she does well, and keep your discussion of her body to what that body can do rather than what it looks like. Obviously, focusing on the girl's character and mind are good, but even when discussing her body you shouldn't limit yourself to what the culture values in women's bodies.

Anonymous said...

As a woman who's struggled with an E.D. for over 10 years, and been seriously working on recovery for the past year...the only things I can think to add to these excellent recommendations are suggestions about communication and dealing with feelings.

Basically, to teach and model how to honestly and effectively communicate with your loved ones and others. But also help the child to feel safe and secure to express any emotion they may feel, and teach them how to do it in an appropriate manner. So many of the eating disordered women and girls I have been in treatment with struggle to use their "voice" and instead of speaking up, use symptoms.

Also, teach ways to handle and cope with feeling other than through food (both eating and not eating). This may sound silly, but think about how many times someone offered a kid a treat after they got hurt so they wouldn't be sad. (small example) But the idea is not to start using food as comfort at such a young age and find other things that do... talk, paint, read, a hobby, going outside for a walk, a hug, etc.

that's my two cents for what its worth. after all, i'm practicing using my voice (as best as one can on the internet)

Anonymous said...

one thing that has always bothered me is people reinforcing a duality between YOU and YOUR BODY. "you are not your body" kind of thing. i feel i AM my body, my body is me. there's no difference.

i'm still trapped in my eating disorder, but i often think that if someone said to women about our character the sort of things they say about our bodies, we'd talk back. i feel as protective of my body as whatever is inside me...i do not believe there is a difference between my body and me.

i wish i'd started defending my body, and thinking of my body as my self, sooner.

Steele said...

To be honest, I think its possible to develop an eating disorder no matter how careful your parents are.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous above - the mind and body duality was especially harmful for me growing up. Also, make sure both parents are on board with raising their children in a body-respecting household. My father thought he was just joking and would call me "pig girl" when he saw me eating anything with sugar in it and then my mother would freak out and yell that he was going to give me a complex. It's better if everyone is on the same page.

BTW - I love your blog.

Anonymous said...

All the advice that's been given is quite good, but there is more to consider:
-Don't allow your daughter to be abused in any way

-Don't make it a habit to scream at her when you are frustrated

-Don't let her siblings act or say abusive things about her body or looks; firmly nip this in the bud and have a zero tolerance factor about it

-Don't expect her to be your "friend" (when she is an adult, that is more appropriate but she is your daughter first, especially below the age of 25)

-If you are ashamed of your own body (not surprising if you are; in this world, it's more strange not to be) - be honest about this as your child matures. Don't put on a sunny facade, kids can see through that. Tell your child, when she's old enough, how vital, yet how difficult it is to not engage in "fat talk" (in your head and with other women).

-Try not to engage in "fat talk", especially in front of your child

-Don't ban fashion magazines, but Do talk to your daughter about them in as non-judgemental way as possible.

-Tell her that fashion mags only show one type of body, usually, but that there are Many Many variations on "beautiful" for everyone, including men

-Encourage your daughter to take pride in how her body works

-Allow her to show off a bit with clothing and makeup (if she wants to) but do not dress your kid like a, well, like a slut. Don't put her in trashy revealing clothes. This includes t-shirts with risque/suggestive sayings.

-Tell all your children you love them as they are. Even though you are proud of their accomplishments, tell them and show them how much you love them, even when they fail, mess up, embarass themselves (or you). Tell them (and show them) that your love is - forever - unconditional.

-But also remember, as well, to provide firm boundaries w/o being too rigid.

Whew! It's not easy being a parent, is it? But it's also not easy growing up in this world, either.

Anonymous said...

1) NEVER use the word "diet" - it's a four letter word
2) There are no "good" or "bad" foods
3) NEVER follow a fad diet, especially in front of your children
4) Offer your child healthy, balanced meals (and you eat it too - good role model that you are)
6) Don't push your kids to be active or participate in everything
7) Don't use food as a reward (no - good job, let's get ice cream!)
8) Make "treats" just that - once in a while
9) Start children on fruits/vegetables (without fat, sauce, dressing, etc.)
10) Teach your children to accept all body sizes/types just like they accept all differences between people

Anonymous said...

This is a long time after the original post, but I wanted to weigh in here. I have always thought it would be a better idea for parents to simply not comment on their children's weight/appearance at all rather than telling them they are beautiful. When I was younger my mother always told me I was so beautiful and skinny and this brought my attention to my appearance in a way that I would never have noticed or worried about it otherwise! The fact is that someone's appearance says nothing about them and is almost out of their control; it shouldn't be an issue of praise and compliments on looks to negate self-esteem but rather emphasizing your child's talents -- and if they ask, say, "I think you are beautiful, but there are many more important things about you than your looks." If you continually tell your child they are beautiful, this will not only cause them to focus on their appearance but create a false expectation that they will live up to society's standards of beauty and that everyone will praise them, when in fact that may not be the case.