Hello. I’m Harriet Frew. I’m a Mum of three – one girl and two boys. I’m also a therapist, specialising in eating disorders and body image.
Sadly, the seeds for eating disorder development are often inadvertently sown from a young age. This is NOT to blame parents, as eating disorders are complex illness. It does mean though, that we can significantly influence our children’s mental wellbeing and have a key role to play.
And what an overwhelming pressure that feels!
I certainly feel it. I am trying to help my children navigate a healthy relationship with food, whilst feeling bombarded from all directions. We are told by adverts on TV, that 100kcal snacks are the Holy Grail. We have ‘Healthy Week’ in school, and children’s lunch boxes are scrutinised for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. My boys already talk of six-packs and muscles, and they haven’t left primary school yet. Worrying!
Of course, I want my three children to grow up, having healthy bodies and enjoying nourishing food. I don’t want them to be overweight, so increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes and other illnesses, or losing all their teeth from guzzling bottles of Lucozade.
But as importantly, I don’t want them to be food obsessed either, through counting calories, dieting or over-exercising in the pursuit of ‘body perfection’. It is a tricky balance to strike.
What can help?
- AVOID BEING THE FOOD POLICE
If your children feel deprived or restricted in their eating, certain foods become more special and desirable. They can be at increased risk of eating these foods in secret or going crazy for them, when suddenly faced with a party buffet.
You as the parent, have the complicated job of providing some healthy boundaries around food, but also allowing some flexibility and freedom with eating. It’s a tightrope.
Ultimately, food shouldn’t become an anxious or stressful affair.
How delicious to enjoy an ice-cream on a hot day or to bake some cakes, and then ice and enjoy them together.
Your child will regulate their eating surprisingly well when given the chance. Children that gorge on sugar, are usually the ones that aren’t allowed any day-to-day.
- FEEL THE FEELINGS
I think this is the most important, but possibly most overlooked tip.
Everyone is always banging on about body image and eating, but we need to look deeper. If a child begins to restrict or overeat, then there is probably an emotional trigger.
It doesn’t have to be bare-faced trauma or abuse; rather more commonly, it can be the drip-drip life stresses, of feeling left out at school or not feeling not good enough.
As a parent, if you can support your child, with expressing and managing their feelings, you are gifting an immense treasure.
How to do this?
- Properly listen to your child. Put your phone down and give your full attention.
- Reflect back their feelings, so they learn to name and own them – ‘you feel sad’.
- Don’t always rush in to fix a situation or tell them to ‘snap out of it’. Allow your child to feel their feelings and work through them.
- WORK ON YOUR OWN BODY ACCEPTANCE
Oh the pressure, to ‘love your body’ and be the aspiring role-model for your child. This is hard.
You might have a few of your own food issues lurking in the cupboard. These can often come to a fore when you’re a Mum. You are trying to ‘do it all’ and your self-care gets pushed to the bottom of the laundry basket. Food issues can evolve as a coping strategy, as you adjust to busyness and overwhelm.
If you are struggling, be brave, get some help through counselling. This will not only benefit you, but your children also.
Try and protect your child. Do not berate your body or talk openly about dieting or weight. Do all that you can, to celebrate your body for what it can do. It is pretty amazing if you have given birth for starters.
- MEDIA AND COMPARISONS
Teach your children that social media is not real life, by having regular conversations and debates. People in the media face huge pressures to be thinner and aesthetically pleasing. They do not reflect regular, everyday human beings, and we need to remember this.
Talk to your children about real body shapes and sizes. Encourage them to seek out a diverse range of role-models and influences.
- BOOST SELF-ESTEEM
Encourage your child every day – ‘I can see you worked hard at that game; you are very kind and thoughtful thinking of Jack’.
Curb the critical voice. I know I have to bite my tongue regularly; when tired, stressed and juggling, it is easy to notice the ‘what’s not going well’.
Appreciate the wonderful things about your children – the qualities that make them unique and special. Express this through kind words, actions and thoughts.
Never compare your child, with siblings or friends. This gives the message that ‘you’re not good enough. You need to be more like them’. It destroys self-esteem.
We are all a work in progress in this. Be kind and compassionate with yourself.
I am working on being more encouraging and curbing the critical voice right now. Which one(s) stand out for you?
If you like this post, for further tips on disordered eating and body image, please visit Rethink your Body.