Ensuring a child is healthy and well-nourished is an ongoing priority for parents. But promoting nutritious eating habits goes beyond making sure they’re having enough fruits and vegetables; It’s also important that children are developing positive relationships with food.
The National Eating Disorder Association reports between 40% and 60% of girls ages 6 to 12 are already expressing concerns about their weight and becoming “too fat.” These thoughts can lead to unhealthy or disordered eating behaviors.
“We’ve seen the ages of children who are struggling with eating habits get lower and lower,” said Stefanie Paliatsos, PhD, a psychologist with Baptist Behavioral Health. “Studies have found 46% of children 9 to 11 are on diets.”
An eating disorder is a persistent and unhealthy relationship with food that not only affects one’s physical health, but also mental health and psychosocial functioning. There are many factors that contribute to a child or adolescent developing one, but parents can play an active, positive role in reducing that risk.
Watch words and actions
Children are more likely to develop an eating disorder when a parent or family member has one, according to Dr. Paliatsos. This is because children absorb much of what they see and hear, even in their earliest years. Jokes or comments about weight and appearance can influence how a child feels about their own body and shape their attitudes around eating.
“It’s not just the things you say to your child about their weight or appearance, but also what you say about yourself,” Dr. Paliatsos said. “Negative comments really have more of an impact than people realize.”
Parents promoting diet culture or frequently restricting eating can also negatively impact a child’s relationship with food. Because of this, Dr. Paliatsos recommended parents practice healthy behaviors and avoid evaluating themselves or others based on physical attributes.
“For children and adolescents, there's a lot of influence and susceptibility that’s then internalized,” she said. “This may be based on negative feelings they already have or from social media’s portrayal of unrealistic body shapes and weight expectations. Both can be drivers of disordered eating behaviors.”
Parents should also reframe how they view and foster “healthy” eating.
“Healthy eating is your approach to eating as much as it is what you’re eating,” Dr. Paliatsos said.
For example, if a child expresses they’re feeling full, parents shouldn’t push them to finish the whole plate.
“That contributes to learning that they shouldn’t listen to their internal cues,” she explained.
Additionally, categorizing foods as “good” and “bad” or withholding certain foods can warp a child’s perception of eating. According to Dr. Paliatsos, a precursor for some adolescents developing an eating disorder is striving to be healthier through more limited diets such as vegan or vegetarian.
“It can start for some when they’re limiting what they eat but framing it as a healthy restriction. But then, it really turns into more and more restrictive eating,” she said.
Instead, parents should focus on ensuring their child listens to internal fullness cues and eats mindfully, enjoying everything in moderation. Families should also take the opportunity to eat together at the dining table, rather than separately or while watching television.
“Healthy eating is something that's going to be sustainable. It's also about having a positive relationship with food, so food isn't controlling you,” Dr. Paliatsos said.
When intervention is needed
It’s important to note that despite a parent’s best efforts to model healthy behaviors at home, a child may still struggle with harmful eating habits or develop an eating disorder. Parents shouldn’t blame themselves.
Instead, Dr. Paliatsos recommended parents ask, “What can I do to help and support you?” They can also educate themselves on eating disordered thoughts and behaviors, and seek professional support from a pediatrician or pediatric mental health specialist.
If your child or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the experts. To schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, call 904.202.4YOU (4968). To schedule an appointment with Wolfson Children’s Behavioral Health or Baptist Behavioral Health, call 904.376.3800.