I recently gave a talk for parents on Eating Disorders and what parents wanted to know most was: How do I prevent my child from developing an eating disorder?
Here are five things you can do (and some you can be conscious of NOT doing) to assist with preventing your child from developing an eating disorder:
- 1. DON’T Diet.
Diets don’t work. This has been proven again and again. Here are a few scary statistics:
*95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years (Grodstein, Levine, Spencer, Colditz, & Stampfer, 1996; Neumark-Sztainer, Haines, Wall, & Eisenberg, 2007).
*80% of 10-year-old girls in America have dieted to lose weight. (Bates, 2016)
Women who were put on diets as young girls are more likely to struggle with obesity, alcohol abuse and disordered eating as adults. (Keel, 2014).
*35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. (Shisslak, Crago, & Estes, 1995).
- 2. DO eat intuitively.
Intuitive eating can be summarized by: relying on internal cues for hunger and satiety, eating for physiological rather than emotional reasons, having no dietary restrictions/unconditional permission to eat, and body size acceptance (Tribole, and Resche, Intuitive Eating A Revolutionary program that Works, 1995, 2012). Listen to your own hunger and don’t restrict. Give yourself permission to enjoy eating!
- 3. Take care of your own body image.
Be mindful that you are your child’s mirror. You may be tempted, as I saw in a humourous newspaper wear a “Mom’s Bathing Suit as One Giant, Body-Ecclipsing Ruffle.” You many gaze disgustedly in the mirror at your postpartum muffin top. Postpartum body image and ageing can be brutal. However, don’t allow yourself to buy into the culture’s message around self-worth being tied to “getting your postbaby body back in shape.”
A) Your postpartum body will never be the same shape. You grew a baby in there.
B) Your worth is bigger now. You have been changed by life. Try and embrace and radically accept that. Be proud of your tummy like your child is proud of theirs. You are beautiful because of the life you have lived and your body reflects that: all the scars, stretches, and wrinkles. A wizened tree does not Botox itself to look like a skinny leaf-sprout. Be the tree that you are proudly (or, on a bad day, good-enough).
- 4. Follow the “Division of Responsibility” when feeding your child.
Briefly, the division of responsibility is: The parent is responsible for What, When, and Where you eat. The child is responsible for How much and Whether they eat. This is based on Ellen Sattyr’s work. To see a handout on this, click here
I know it can be hard to trust that your child WILL choose to eat vegetables. But it CAN and DOES happen. See this amazing transformation in my own little one, who used to only eat anything soft and white. Notice how one carrot and two bits of pepper have grown into a plate almost entirely filled with vegetables!
(By the way, DO respect sensory sensitivities. If your child prefers soft texture, make soft texture food and gradually without a fight and making it fun introduce other textures.) And, remember: there are no bad foods. Kids need carbs and fat, and so do you. They help you have enough energy, they feed your brain.
- 5. Allow all feelings in your family (especially uncomfortable ones like anger, fear, and shame).
Low tolerance for negative affect has been shown to be one of the factors contributing to eating disorders. What does this mean? It means, in order to create an environment where your child will not feel they have to hide or stuff parts of themselves in order to be loved, you have to allow discomfort. Anger is a tough one. Most people error in one direction (rage at others) or the other (blame self and stuff into depression). Work on expressing anger at the level of irritation before it gets too overwhelmingly big. Have weekly family meetings. If you get in a fight with your partner, make up and show your child you have made up so they can see people re-unite after being mad at each other. When your child is mad, don’t withdraw your affection. Notice: “I see you are mad. I’m going to help you. I love you even when you are mad. You can hit the pillow, but not me. I’m going to stay with you until we work this out.” Allow fear. Allow insecurity, embrace imperfection. When someone makes a mistake in our house, we say “Yay! I made a mistake!” This is not my natural inclination. The natural inclination with shame is to hide it. Sweep it under the rug quickly! Pretend-like-you-know-what-you-are-doing-before-you-get-in-trouble-or-someone-sees-that-you-are-a-fraud! Don’t do this. Turn toward your own and your child’s imperfections and growth edges. Growing requires failing, and failing, and failing before succeeding. Support your child in practicing new skills. When your little one is learning to walk and falls down, you say “Hooray! Try again!” Continue to do this with yourself and your little one. Again and again.
It is possible to prevent eating disorders. And it is also possible to build a strong protective factors so that if your child develops one, they can recover with more ease. Do what you can. Eating Disorders are complex and develop from a unique and individual interplay of many factors. Eating disorders are no-one’s fault, but everyone’s responsibility. Prevention and recovery are possible.
I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love author)’s new book Big Magic. It is a fabulous journey exploring the relationship between fear, creativity, inspiration, and life. Here is an excerpt of a letter she wrote to fear.
“Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously…But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way…You’re allowed to have a seat, you’re allowed to have a voice, but you’re not allowed to have a vote…above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
It can be hard to talk back to fear, to allow it, without letting it run the show. Fear likes to be dictatorial. It lives in the land of cognitive distortions, so it is full of globalizing, catastrophizing, shaming, and emotional reasoning. “This will never work,” “If you do this, you will never have enough money to live on,” “Who do you think you are?!” “You are a fraud, and they are going to find out eventually, so why even pretend you’re not?” “This is the way things have always been, so this is the way they should be.”
In my own recovery I had to learn to identify the voice of fear, like a subtle click of the clock, tick tick tick, always whispering in the background of my mind. I had to notice this was part but not all of me. In my work with clients, I help facilitate separating out the voices of fear and also of the eating disorder (sometimes shortened to “Ed”). They are often quite similar in tone. This is an important aspect of recovery, and of cultivating the courage to be your full self, because it allows you access to the other pats of you. Fear and Ed do not like you to be aware that you have other parts to yourself. They speak loudly, and try to run your life. OK, sometimes they speak quietly. Actually, they’re quite sneaky that way: they morph. Sometimes they are so quiet that you can’t even hear them talking to you, because it is more of a niggling, silent belief that colors your whole world view. For example, it might not say this, but rather imply strongly as a silently pervasive belief, don’t even try because you are going to fail. Before you act on this belief, it is important to take opposite action. Jenni Schaeffer, in her book Life without ED, writes about the importance of learning to Disagree and Disobey the Ed voice:
When you are trying to begin your separation from Ed, it is important that you first recognize Ed’s rules in your life. You must be able to distinguish between standards that Ed holds for you and healthy boundaries that you set for yourself. You must realize that Ed’s rules do not make sense. For instance, many of Ed’s rules contradict each other. On one day, Ed tells you not to touch that ice cream or dare drink that soda. Then, the very next day, Ed says, “Eat that entire gallon of ice cream, and drink three cans of soda. Eat as much as you can until you feel sick.” Ed’s rules are designed to harm us.
After you are able to recognize Ed’s rules in your life, you must try to disagree with and disobey them. Even if it seems impossible for you to actually disagree with one of Ed’s rules, you must still try to disobey him. If you are able to break his rules no matter what, you are taking a huge step toward separating from Ed. Disobeying Ed means you are moving in the right direction. Don’t expect it to be easy.
In the beginning of my recovery twenty years ago, I would say this to my ED voice every week when getting ready to attend my recovery support group:
You can come if you want. You are welcome to ride the bus with me to get there, you are welcome to attend the meeting. You don’t get to decide if I go. We are going. I show up, now, regardless.
And then I would go to my support group. Every week. For the record, Ed kept trying to convince me otherwise:
“You haven’t had any eating disorder behaviors in a week (a month, 6 months,…), you don’t need to go!”
“You just had a hard day at work. You already did your job today. You need to rest. Just skip it this one time.”
“You’re fat.” (Ed’s answer to every question and reason for not participating in any and all aspects of life.)
My Ed voice doesn’t do this anymore because it knows it has been banished. It’s not driving the bus, car, or whatever vehicle you want to use as a metaphor for the-part-of-the-Self-that-is-driving-decision-making. However, fear is still here. Fear says
“You don’t need to do your spiritual practice today – just sleep in.”
“You don’t need to write. It is too tedious, it doesn’t pay, your favorite publisher is closing down, no-one reads anymore, anyway… “
But the thing is, writing makes me happy. Not euphoric-happy; but content-happy. Clear-happy. Free of resentments and the cumulative-gunk-of-living-cleared-out happy. My first year of recovery I worked in a recovery book store. Sometimes, when I had to open the store early, I would not have time to write before coming in. The owner of the store (who was also my friend and inspiration for getting into recovery) would know the days I had written and the days I hadn’t. He would say “STEER CLEAR OF HER” and bring me coffee on the days I hadn’t. 🙂
Writing is like recovery, meditation, or any creative practice that you show up for on a regular and consistent basis. It gradually, subtly, integrates the shit (compost, anger, resentments, fears) into new sprouts. And these sprouts grow into plants (or not – some of them die and that is appropriate). And the plant that survives becomes the tree of who you are and who you are becoming. It brings the gift of hard-won persistent and regular work. It makes you more authentically you in a subtle but essential way. It wears down your anxieties, softens your fear. It uses your sadness and grief as a way into the interior of your (and other’s) Hearts. When you show up to the page, day after day, month after month, year after year, you become real. Velveteen Rabbit real. And by the time you become Real, you don’t care anymore what the Ed-voice or the fear-voice have to say. They can’t stop you any more. You have found the Real-ness. That is the Big Magic.That is recovery.
I’m so excited to have a guest blog today by By Andrea Wachter, LMFT, co-author of The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook and the new children’s book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell. I have followed her work for years (since I got into recovery nineteen years ago!) and am honored to share her words of wisdom.
Breaking the Bad Body Image Legacy
I was raised by a mom who was extremely dissatisfied with her body. Sadly, and statistically, there is a good chance that you were too. It’s nobody’s fault. Most of our mothers were handed the same bad body image baton that we were, leaving far too many of us competing in the never ending race of trying to eat a certain way, exercise a certain way and look a certain way in order to feel attractive and loveable.
Fortunately, there is a movement toward health and healing. My hope is that someday, a woman who dislikes or despises her body will be as rare as one who thinks that washing her child’s mouth out with soap is a wise parenting tool. As a culture, we need a massive update on our body image programming and if you are reading this blog, there is a good chance that you are up for the task.
Whether someone inherits a bad body image from their family, or learned it from our crazy culture, it is possible to heal. In my therapy practice, I have worked with women of all ages and from all walks of life and I have found that if there is desire and willingness, there is hope to break the legacy of bad body image.
My earliest memory of body image awareness was when I was about eight years old. I innocently walked into the bathroom and saw my mom soaking in the tub. While I don’t remember her exact words, I do recall her saying something negative and unkind about her body. I silently wondered why she didn’t like her body. And the programming went on from there: negative comments she made about feeling or being fat; certain foods being deemed “good” or “bad;” needing to diet or exercise to make up for what she ate.
Then came the painfully memorable shift when the focus turned to my body: Being told I was “getting a little chubby;” getting served the tasteless diet foods that were kept in a special freezer in the garage, while my dad and brother ate the regular foods from the kitchen; my dad telling me I have “such a pretty face,” if only I would “lose a few pounds;” paying my sister and me to lose weight.
I harbor not an ounce of blame or resentment toward these precious people. They received the same mixed-up messages we all have: If you lose weight, you will be more attractive and loveable. If you exercise, eat lean proteins, vegetables and fruits, you will be “good.” If you eat what have been deemed “bad” foods, you will be out of control and lose the praise and love you so hunger for.
Being a sensitive child who was desperately eager to please, I took my parents’ early teachings to heart. My dieting turned to sneak eating which led to periods of serious restricting which led to major binges which eventually morphed into a hard core case of bulimia. I added massive amounts of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes into the mix and spent decades completely lost in food, weight and body obsession. My self-worth, my social life, my love life, my health and my schooling were all greatly and negatively impacted by my painful and insidious relationship with food and my constant attempts to lose weight. And even when I did manage (countless times) to lose weight, it never once brought the peace of mind and happiness that I was told it would. Instead, my weight losses came with terror of weight gain and the animal-like hunger that accompanies and follows starvation.
I once asked my mom how she became so obsessed with dieting and so unhappy with her body. She told me that her mom and grandmother were both heavy but really didn’t seem to give it a second thought. It was only when she moved out of her poor Brooklyn neighborhood and into a “nice neighborhood filled with thin women” that she began to diet. She said, “I think I learned it from friends and it probably came from watching TV. Plus, your father was always so obsessed with my being thin.”
I then asked my dad how he came to be so obsessed with thinness. His answer was honest and it actually made sense to me. My dad ran a ladies clothing company in Manhattan. He worked tirelessly in the factory and he explained, “I guess I saw that the sewers in the factory were all fat and poor and seemed pretty unhappy. They had hard lives. The models who worked for us in the showroom were all thin, rich and glamourous and they seemed to be so happy.” Seemed being the operative word here. My precious papa took a small segment of the population, made some big assumptions, and based on his profound love for me, led me down a road he thought would bring me goodness. As did my mom. We were all given the same faulty programs.
The great news is that I eventually found my way out. And even better news is that I made a career out of it. My life’s work is now about helping others overcome their battles with food, weight and body issues as well as doing early prevention for kids who are showing signs of body dissatisfaction. Much like drugs, the earlier you intervene, the less entrenched the patterns are and all the more hope there is to change.
I was not a light weight dieter, binger and body hater. (Pardon the pun!) I went hard core. Fortunately, I dove hard core into healing too. It takes hard core dedication to break the legacy that so many of us have been handed: to eat exactly what we want in moderate amounts; to say “no” to food, even when others are pushing us to eat; to say “yes” to moving our bodies in ways we love; to say “yes” to rest when we are tired; to say “yes” to tears and compassion when we are sad, mad or scared; to speak our truth rather than stuff it with excess food; to say “no” to unachievable perfection; to accept and appreciate the size and shape of the bodies we were given, the age we are, the aging process.
Healing from food and body issues is not for the faint of heart, but then neither is starving ourselves, overeating, bingeing, body hatred or constant comparing. Both paths are challenging but thankfully one road leads to freedom and peace. I wish this for you.
Click here to check out Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell by Andrea Wachter and Marsea Marcus.
Andrea Wachter is a psychotherapist and co-author of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell as well as The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook. She is also au
thor of the upcoming book, Getting Over Overeating for Teens. Andrea is an inspirational counselor,
author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, blogs and other services, please visit innersolutions
Here is an art therapy exercise that I learned years ago which is FABULOUS to do with your little one. It only takes 5-10 minutes, but can have a profound effect of your child feeling seen and mirrored:
- 1.Get a piece of paper and drawing stuff (markers, crayons, pastels, whatever you have).
- 2. Divide the paper in half.
- 3. Sit across from your child with half the paper in front of you and half the paper in front of them.
- 4. Mirror draw everything that they draw on their side on your side as they draw it. If you are a “good” drawer and want to level the playing field, use your nondominant hand.
Do Not comment (“I really like those scribbles/sun/house”), draw something else, judge (“This is BAD ART,” “I suck at creativity”), or interpret (“My child is a genius”).
Just mirror and be in their world for a few minutes. Don’t worry about what it means. Just be a mirror. Reflect their light back to them.
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
-Antoine de Saint Exupery, The Little Prince
“Fostering our children’s creativity, we are fostering
our children’s spirituality as well.”
-Julia Cameron, The Artist’s way for Parents
It’s been Spring break this past week. The challenge for parents everywhere: WHAT TO DO ALL WEEK with no school? One challenge for me as a parent is not planning anything. I’m a planner. I like to have things mapped out. But kids and the right brain (and kids are right-brained) do not plan. They are not operating according to the calendar, the clock, or the latest apple device on your wrist. Here is something that emerged spontaneously this week after seeing a log with a fairy door in it in our local park:
- We also made a Roly Poly house from an old honey pot filled with dirt and leaves.
- We’ve also made about 5,000 Lego “microbots.” Microbots are tiny robots made from Legos. Who knew (except for parents of Lego-fiends).
Here’s the point: If you follow the thread of your child’s creativity (which you can see by watching them play), it will lead you to magic. It will lead to that place where your hearts are connected. As the Child Psychologist Gordon Neufeld (co-author of Hold On to Your Kids, 2006) talks about, kids don’t run away from home. Kids run toward home. Home is their heart. If you don’t stay connected with your child’s heart, they will go elsewhere (drugs, eating disorders, their electronic devices) to find it.
But what if playing with your child bores you to tears? Here are some thoughts:
- 1) Fully engage in play in a way that engages you as well as your child. (I was seriously into that fairy house. So much fun. I think my child might have picked up on that 🙂 ) Your child wants to connect with you. Show them it is possible to find the vein of gold in play and creativity and this gives them permission to find theirs.
- 2) Plan in lateral passes. I think that is the right metaphor? I don’t watch football, but apparently, there is a way to pass the ball sideways in which you hand it to a team-mate? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is get support and “hand off” kid playing and creating to other caregivers, whoever they may be (your souse, your mommy friends, your children’s grandparents, your nanny…). No-one can play for 8 hours (except kids – let them. This is how their brains develop). I know you need to do the dishwasher, the laundry, go to work, oh, and by the way, take a break. Patty Wipfler, the fabulous director of hand-in-hand parenting, recommends 10 minutes of special time per day with your lttle one. Anyone can do it for ten minutes. Then you can lateral pass.
- 3) Do your own creative practice. Do it regularly so you can stay connected with your own emotions and creativity. I’m not talking about “being an artist.” I’m talking about writing in a journal for 5-10 minutes a day, or collage-ing, or dancing, or going to a yoga class, or meditating, even if it is only for 5 minutes.
“Someone once asked Somerset Maughham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles
If you need to get up before everyone else, do that. If you need to hire a babysitter, do it. If you need to tell your co-parent: “I need 10 minutes before dinner (or after the child/ren are down in bed) every night,” DO IT. This is self-care for mamas, which is usually the first thing to go down the toilet. Get your self-care back to the top of the list. And practice it every day. If you are a planner, like me, go ahead and schedule it 🙂 Your emotions will have an outlet and your dreams will (re)emerge to you. You may feel happier, less bored, or not quite as angry. If so, everyone will benefit.