Eating disorders are rarely about the food itself. Often, the root cause is an untreated or unresolved trauma.
However, some phrases parents and carers use by habit can be more damaging than anyone intends. They can lead young people to develop unhealthy food behaviours or even exacerbate an eating disorder’s early stages.
Eat it up or you won’t grow big and strong
Introducing consequences into mealtimes can lead your child to develop an unhealthy food habit. By implying the optimum goal of eating is to grow big and strong, you are reinforcing a message that food has only one purpose. Therefore children may believe food is not there to be enjoyed.
In addition, this sentiment may cause a child to feel a sense of failure if they do not eat everything on their plate. Likewise, the word ‘big’ can trigger some, whilst the word ‘strong’ has male connotations and may further emphasise the outdated (and invalid) assumption that boys are strong and girls are weak.
Clean your plate or Just one more bite
It’s important for parents to teach their kids to eat until they are satisfied, not until their plates are empty. The idea is to encourage kids to acknowledge and respect the satisfying feeling of being full.
If you ask a child or young person to finish all their food, you ask them to ignore and eat beyond the feeling of fullness. If you force your child to eat more, you’re forcing them to ignore their natural brain receptors and overeat. Let your child listen to their natural cues so they don’t offset their body rhythm.
Your mum won’t eat carrots
Parents’ food preferences can have powerful effects on children, not least because parents are ‘gatekeepers’ of their children’s eating. Parents provide examples of behaviours to follow as a child’s life models.
A child who experiences a parent modelling behaviour towards food, such as a distaste or aversion to vegetables, may learn that this behaviour is normal.
Up to about 12, you have control over your child’s environment, so it’s important to be a good role model for eating, which means eating well and letting them see you eating well. It also means highlighting the joy of food and reminding children that it’s a time to come together as a family.
If you eat your vegetables, you can have pudding
Regularly using this type of language where sweet food is a treat or reward will build up a script in your child’s head where healthy food is boring and sweet foods are good and a useful way to manage emotions. It is no surprise that many adults come to resent healthy eating and turn to cake and not carrot sticks when they feel low.
Ensure to give healthy desserts regardless of whether meals have been eaten or not. This removes the association of earning dessert from eating food they may not like or want.
You’re such a picky eater
The word picky is loaded with negative connotations. Telling your child or someone else in front of your child that they are a picky eater is identity-shaping talk. Labelling your child risks limiting how they see themselves and could also trigger that child to adopt that identity.
From a very young age, children look up to their parents and mimic many of their words and actions subconsciously.
Of course, parents and carers do not mean to harm their children in their everyday words, but it is important to acknowledge the impact words and actions can have on a child. They may have a negative impact on their behaviour, confidence, and identity as they grow into adolescence.
Warning signs of eating disorders in young people and children
More young people are receiving treatment for eating disorders (NHS). Look out for behavioural changes in your child’s eating habits, such as eating a restricted range of foods, introducing rules around what type of foods they eat and how they eat them or speaking negatively about their weight and appearance.
Other signs include feeling guilty after eating, social withdrawal, particularly around eating times and for older children, and a preoccupation with checking calories or other ingredients in food.
Eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders are also obsessive and compulsive disorders and are often accompanied by rituals. For instance, you may see a child chew their food several times or perhaps eat it in particular colour order on their plate. There is a connection between the two diagnoses and some commonalities in symptoms. Look out for these signs.
Children and young people can develop problems with food for various reasons. It can start as a coping mechanism or as a tactic to feel in control. The concern is that these smaller habits could lead to them introducing more prohibiting eating patterns and extreme behaviours.
Eating disorders are sadly a wildly stigmatised illness. They are often viewed as a phase a child will grow out of instead of a complex and dangerous mental illness. It’s a stigma that can delay or prevent a child from receiving the care and treatment they need.
What can parents and caregivers do if their child shows signs of eating problems or an eating disorder?
- Encourage your child to talk to you about how they feel. Remember, no child ever caught an eating disorder just from talking about it.
- Accept that they may find it more comfortable to talk to someone they trust, like another family member or doctor.
- Listen to them without judgement and avoid language which is dismissive or critical of them. Likewise, avoid talking to them about this around the dinner table.
- Give them reassurance that you are there to help them and plan to do positive activities that may help break the cycle of negative thinking.
- Seek the advice and guidance of specialists. Don’t delay if you see signs of deterioration or if your child has additional symptoms such as suicidal thoughts or self-harming.
What’s caused the rise in eating disorders in the UK?
Inpatient hospital admissions in England for eating disorders have increased by 84% in the last five years, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Children and young people are the worst affected, with a 90% jump.
- Young people faced a unique set of pressures during the Covid-19 pandemic. As well as the lack of structure, isolation, and heightened anxiety, they also faced unhealthy discourse from social media.
- Social media is a rich source of symbolic models and is a powerful transmitter of cultural ideals about body shape and size. It can be dangerous for children to identify with those who overwhelmingly conform to an ideal body shape.
- It may motivate them to behave in ways that help them to achieve a perceived ideal, such as dieting or extreme exercise. Worryingly, some hashtags related to eating disorder topics have millions of views.
- Adolescent patients have told me they have seen posts promoting eating disorders and have been part of forums where they share their weight loss and encourage others to fast and diet.
If you are worried about your child’s behaviour around food or are concerned they may have an eating disorder, seek the help of a medical professional immediately.
Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is the UK and international registered psychotherapist and accredited clinical supervisor.