Could You Be Fostering an Eating Disordered Child?

Sasha is 5 years old. A physically healthy child of normal weight and size, she is so frightened of becoming fat that she spends every recess period at school running back and forth across the schoolyard in an effort to work off calories. She is a worried and sad little girl. Her mother is worried and sad as well, consumed with questions about why this is happening to her daughter. Could she be doing anything to inadvertently contribute to her child's problem?

Except in cases where there may have been some form of child abuse, parents needn't feel guilty or responsible for having caused this type of extreme eating-related problem that occurs so early in a child's life. In most such cases, these children are born with genetic predispositions towards such behaviors and a temperamen

t that sustains them. Enlightened parents, however, can do a great deal to counteract inherited tendencies as well as the destructive forces of peers and the media, by proactively shaping a child's healthy attitudes towards food, eating and body image.

Sasha's mom tries to be the best role model she can be for her daughter. She believes that she is a healthy eater and tries to do "everything right." She consults nutritional labels in an effort to limit her fat intake, keeps no junk foods in the house, has only coffee for breakfast, and Slimfast for lunch most days. She exercises regularly and is careful about the foods she eats in an effort to lose weight and keep it off.

What Parents Need to Know in order to be Positive Role Models for their Children

  • Parents need to know what healthy eating is. Healthy eating is moderate, varied and balanced eating; it is eating without restriction and without excess. Parents provide a healthy eating lifestyle for their children by preparing three nutritious meals a day that contain all the food groups, and by sitting down to eat these meals together with family as often as possible. Healthy eating is not about weight control. Fat-free eating is unhealthy eating for the young child.
  • Parents need to be aware of their own personal attitudes and behaviors towards food, eating and body image; they need to become aware of the messages they send to their child, purposefully or inadvertently, about eating and body image. When parents struggle with their own fears or issues in this regard, it is difficult for them to become impartial observers and positive role models for their child.
  • Parents are their child's most effective teachers. The young child is not born knowing that the body is a precious machine that needs fueling, nurturance and care in order to grow optimally, feel good, learn, play, and remain healthy. Children need to recognize that their body is the only vessel they will ever have to take them through the journey of life.

The Best Laid Plans.....

A healthy child, of normal weight and size, is so frightened of becoming fat. Are the parents doing anything to inadvertently contribute to the child concerns with weight and body image?Sasha's mom's intentions are about as good as any parent's can be. She can rest assured that Sasha does not have an eating disorder, though her daughter's misguided notions about food and exercise could possibly put her at high risk to develop one in the future. Sasha is most likely learning life lessons from her mother that are not at all what her mother intended to convey.

Through watching her mother's behaviors, in her confusion, Sasha has come to believe that:

  • Food is fattening.
  • Fat is unhealthy for the body.
  • Dieting and restricting food is a healthy way to keep one's weight down.
  • It's okay to skip meals.
  • Food substitutes can take the place of meals.
  • Meals are served, not eaten, by parents.
  • Exercise can keep a person slim. The more exercise you do, the thinner you get.
  • Being fat is about being unhealthy, unhappy and unattractive. It must be avoided at all costs.

QUIZ: Are you Teaching your Child Healthy Messages about Eating and Body Image?

  1. Do you have a cupboard that is continuously stocked with nutritious foods?

  2. Do you eat three meals a day? Does your spouse or partner?

  3. Do you serve three meals a day to your young child?

  4. Do you expect your child to eat them?

  5. Do you sit down to eat them together with him or her?

  6. Do you serve varied foods?

  7. Are mealtimes happy, stress free times in your home?

  8. Do you eat at mealtime, even if you are not particularly hungry?

  9. Are you careful not to complain about your weight in front of your child?

  10. Do you attempt to avoid being critical of how your child looks?

  11. Does your child know that the body is a machine that needs fueling? That the brain is a muscle that needs feeding in order to remain alert?

  12. Do you know that dieting is the worst way to lose weight and keep it off?

Parents need to understand that their actions speak more loudly to their children than do words, wishes, or intentions. The child who is raised with healthy eating behaviors is bound to develop into an adolescent and young adult with positive attitudes towards food and the self. Such attitudes are the best immunity a child can develop to the eventual onset of some type of an eating disorder.

next: Eating Disorders And Low Self-Esteem Are On The Rise In Girls
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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 20). Could You Be Fostering an Eating Disordered Child?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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