According to John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, about 30 million people living in the United States have an eating disorder, and 95 percent of those people are between the ages of 12 and 25. Here are some additional facts that every parent needs to know:
- Among the mental illnesses and disorders, people struggling with one or two eating disorders have the highest risk of mortality.
- Environmental factors, genetics, and personality can all influence a person’s development of an eating disorder.
- Eating disorders do not discriminate: People of all ages, ethnic groups, races, and genders can find themselves struggling with an eating disorder.
It is incumbent upon parents to help kids develop a healthy relationship with food and eating because a person’s formative years contribute significantly to habits that last a lifetime.
Parents are key to helping children develop a healthy relationship with food and eating. Here are some tips and pointers to help you achieve this goal.
Emphasize the Importance of Holistic Health
When talking to your kids about healthy eating and food, make sure to teach them that it’s not about their weight or appearance; it’s about their overall health and well-being. Tell them as kindly and as lovingly as you can that the food they consume can also affect their mental and emotional health—because it does.
Moreover, you need to practice what you preach by modeling to them what it means to be healthy. Exercise, drink plenty of water, eat nutritious food, and encourage them to visit your trusted pediatric dentist and doctor twice a year. Kids tend to take their cues from us, so if they see that we are walking the talk and not just telling them what to do, they are more likely to value their overall health and well-being as well.
Cultivate a Sense of Agency Over Their Bodies and Choices
It’s never too early to teach kids that their bodies are their own and that they have the freedom to choose what they want to do with them. Of course, if they are going to do something harmful like jumping off the roof, that’s when we need to step in, but they must learn as early as possible that they have freedom and agency over their bodies. It will also help them understand the value of consent as early as possible. Here are some ways this principle can manifest practically:
- Allowing your kids to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Of course, there is value in creating a schedule, ensuring that our kids eat three times a day, and building a healthy routine, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of their comfort. Let your kid eat if they express they’re hungry, and allow them to stop when they say they’re full, even if there’s still food left on their plate. If they tend to take more food than they can consume, teach them to take small amounts because the food isn’t going to run out, and they can go for seconds if they’re still hungry.
- Giving them healthy snacks throughout the day, like crackers and small biscuits, that they can nibble on when they find themselves a bit hungry throughout the day, especially when they’re at school.
Don’t Use Food as a Tool for Reward or Punishment
If you want your kids to have a healthy relationship with food, then don’t use it as a tool to reward or punish them. For one, depriving kids of food as a way to punish them for misbehavior can be categorized as child abuse, and for another, using food as a way to reward them will make them feel like they have to earn it. It will undermine your efforts to help them develop a healthy view of food and eating.
Instead of outright using food and snacks as a reward or punishment, consider eliminating punishments altogether and instead, use positive re-enforcement by rewarding them for good behavior. For example, if they finish their homework or do a specific chore or task, you can reward them by:
- Giving them an additional monetary allowance
- Taking them to the amusement park
- Buying them that toy they’ve always wanted
- Letting their friend sleepover
- Playing their favorite video or board game with them
Developing a healthy relationship with food and avoiding disordered eating begins early in life, so don’t miss your chance to help your kids see food as sustenance while also enjoying it holistically and healthily. Good luck and be a good example to your child as well!