When I inform people that I’m the clinical director of the Eating Disorder program, people make the assumption that our program helps people eat more healthfully. In fact, the program helps patients and families become more comfortable with food. Labeling food as “good vs. bad,” “healthy,” or “clean” can lead to abnormal behaviors associated with an eating disorder. When talking about food or eating with a child, conversation should be around the positive aspects of the food. Examples are “How was your sandwich today? I tried a new mustard.” or “Was the food in the cafeteria good today?” Talking about food without making judgements is also positive. Many teens already feel judged; when a parent makes subjective statements about food choices it can further increase bad feelings.
Be Open, Establish Boundaries
Like so many other things, food can be a touchy topic with kids. Parents should be open to their children trying or doing new things but it’s also important for kids to know that mom and dad still have the final say. If a child wants to go to a fast food restaurant it’s nice if the parent is open to allowing it, but if that child wants to go to the same place every day for dinner the parent can create boundaries by saying no. If a child wants to start one of the many “diets” that are out there, the parent should ask questions like why they want to diet, what is the end goal this diet, and how long do they expect to be dieting.
Stress Open Communication
All families are different, and all families have varying experiences. There is no such thing as the “perfect family.” Having open communication and setting boundaries are a good way to establish a good relationship with children. This is often easier said than done! At the same time this is a way for parents to be a part of their children’s lives. In the eating disorder world this is important because good communication allows a parent to notice if their kid has lost weight, to know if their child is feeling down or sad and to make it easier to say something like “Is everything okay?” Whether a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or caregiver open communication with a child/adolescent is imperative so if something is going on it is easier to stay “in the know.”
Know the Difference Between Eating Disorder and Disordered Eating
Families often get caught up in difference between eating disorder and disordered eating. When someone is not eating certain foods or seems to be a particularly “picky” eater are examples of disordered eating. It is considered an eating disorder is when food is being restricted or, on the other side of the spectrum, over-consumed to the point . where weight dramatically increases or decreases and other medical problems like hair loss, dizziness, fainting, and for females, loss of period appear.
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