When Parents Have Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are not just diseases of young people. Though it is well known that 90 percent of the eight million people with eating disorders in America today are under the age of 20, the remaining 10 percent of the afflicted population has been overlooked and ignored, unidentified and untreated, despite the fact that adults with eating disorders are becoming an ever-growing reality. Contrary to popular belief, people do not grow out of these disorders simply because they grow up. When young people bring their unresolved eating and body image issues to their adult years, their ability to function in all of their life roles becomes becomes compromised.
Eating Disorders and Parenting
Children learn best through imitation; parents teach best through role modeling. It is not hard to see how, through our parenting, unresolved body image concerns and disturbed attitudes towards eating and weight management are passed down to our children as a legacy from one generation to the next. With insight and awareness, however, enlightened parents with eating issues of their own can do a great deal to prevent their child from falling into the same troublesome attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and food traps that they know so well.
Eating rituals, obsessive preoccupations with food and body image concerns are central to the eating disordered mind, distracting parents from their need to focus on the child’s needs. Children are not born healthy eaters. They learn from parents how to eat, how to feel about what they eat, and how to care for their body. Through being fed by parents, and learning to eat and to feed themselves, children learn trust in themselves and others, they become respectful of their bodies, and develop self-awareness, self-control, self-esteem and good judgment. When parents have eating disorders, these important life lessons become a greater challenge for parents to teach and for children to learn. Research has shown that by the age of five, children of anorexic mothers display a greater incidence of depression, disturbed and restricted eating patterns, and whining.
“Benign” eating quirks, idiosyncratic rituals or disordered eating may be transmitted to children as well; it is not atypical for the otherwise “benign” quality of such adult behaviors to be passed on to the child in the form of a clinical eating disorder. One mother commented to her 13-year-old daughter one night over dinner as she ordered dessert that she was “about to sin, but she would pay penance the following day by exercising for an additional hour.” This mother believes that she lives a healthy eating and exercise lifestyle and does not understand how such an innocent comment could be problematic for her daughter who is recovering from bulimia.
On the subject of food and eating, there is a precariously thin line between what is normal and what is not. The distinguishing factor lies principally in the purpose of the behaviors or attitudes for the individual. When eating behaviors serve emotions rather than appetite, when a person loses the capacity to choose his actions freely and spontaneously based on his own needs and the unique requirements of the moment, behaviors fall into the realm of pathology. There is evidence that the roots of eating disorders lie in genetics, in temperament and personality structure. Though parents are not responsible for causing their child’s eating disorder, parental beliefs, attitudes and examples can do a great deal to shape a child’s attitudes, and may contribute to triggering a child’s genetic susceptibility to developing disease.
When Parents Have Eating Disorders
For parents struggling with their own eating disorder or dysfunction, there is typically little time, energy, or financial resources left over for themselves to work on recovery, which can average 5 to 7 years. Many feel that their needs should take a back seat to those of their children. Even in the most severe cases, hospitalization is not a viable option for parents who do not have the means to hire round the clock caretakers for their children. In addition, eating disorders create stresses and strains on a marriage, interfering with all forms of intimacy.
Parents who struggle with an eating disorder in the midst of a growing family typically suffer in silence. The wish to hide their shame from their children and their spouse creates an atmosphere of secretiveness, of dishonesty, of alibis and fear that pervades all spheres of life, even beyond food and eating. “What they don’t know can’t hurt them,” is the commonly held belief among parents who wish to protect their children from unpleasantness and from developing their own eating disorders. Eating disorders tend to become family secrets that are communally known, however, even when they are not openly acknowledged or discussed. Actions speak louder than words. Children notice when parents skip meals, restrict calories, purchase only fat-free or lite foods, exercise excessively, ritualize the intake of food, are constantly on diets, depreciating themselves and their appearance. When children are not given the tools to understand what they see, they experience guilt and fear, anxiety and stress; in addition, they learn a most damaging and critical life lesson about how not to face and resolve problems openly and effectively.
Being at the very center of healthy living, when food and eating become emotionally charged issues in a family, children become the victims of food myths and fears, and strangers to the welcoming security of communal family meals and sociability. Children become emotionally isolated and disconnected from parents and siblings when families forfeit the family dinner experience in favor of fast foods, separate eating on the run, or eating in front of television. Children invariably suffer depression and anxiety when these diseases are part of a family system. In addition, when disordered parents have difficulty establishing self-controls, they are at a loss to provide appropriate external controls for the child, who needs to internalize these eventually as her own. It is your child’s capacity for self-regulation that will ultimately protect her from developing an eating disorder of her own.
Most importantly, parents with eating disorders must be aware that it is not a foregone conclusion that their children will be adversely affected by their problems. When two parents can be of one mind and present a united front to child, disease, and professional, the strengths of one parent can compensate for the weakness of the other. When parents face an eating disorder and conquer it openly, inclusive of their spouse’s and children’s input and understanding, everyone stands to gain, not only in terms of how they eat, but also in terms of how they face and deal with life, and the long-term quality of family relationships.
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