I am a mother of two girls under the age of four. Being a mother has given me firsthand exposure to how children learn to develop a kind and safe relationship to food and their body. As an eating disorder therapist and a person recovered from a lifetime of eating disorder behaviours, I have an acute awareness — and a vested interest — in ensuring my girls, my clients, everyone, feels at peace with food and their body.
Recognizing how symbiotic (or not) our child’s relationship to food and their body is, and being attuned to the emotional needs of our children, will help to reduce the development of eating disorders.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are complex mental health issues that go far beyond one’s relationship with food and their body. They lie deep within someone — their self-beliefs, traumas, pain, unresolved issues, losses, inadequacies, and fears. It is food and the body, however, which become the place where those who are suffering emotionally, can make tangible their experience.
In other words, feelings are hard to talk about, hard to face, and so it becomes easier to eat them or not eat them, throw them up, or exercise them out, than to actually feel them, communicate them. For parents, when thinking about eating disorder awareness and prevention, we want to practise meeting the emotional needs of our children first so that they learn that what they feel is safe and normal and that there is space for them to be heard and acknowledged.
Probably one of the only things a child has control over is their body. I really noticed this when I was potty training my youngest daughter. In our attempt to control her no longer using diapers, she would run to the corner of our den, squat down behind the couch and poop in her underwear. This went on for weeks. Things were changing for her and she needed to regain a sense of control. Pooping in the corner, in her undies, was her way of obtaining this! Children often show us their feelings behaviourally (dependent upon their age/stage of development).
So as parents, it is noticing these behaviours and then encouraging and supporting the emotional expression that may be underlying them. Children who over-eat (“I feel so empty I need to fill”) or under-eat (“please notice how empty or sad I feel”); children who hoard food (“I need more around me in order to feel safe”), or keep asking you for more food when they have no need for it (“what will it take for you to see me…? I won’t stop asking until you actually see me”) — these children are all saying something outwardly that they cannot verbalize. Food, therefore, becomes their language and their body, the extension of the message.
There are also more tangible signs that would indicate the presence of an eating disorder — signs that can seem less covert than the decoding of behavioural messages. Things like lunch coming home uneaten, meals being missed, indicating they’re “not hungry” or “too busy” to eat, experiencing weight loss or gain, sneaking food, eating when no one sees, isolating, becoming tired, not doing as well in school, showing increased agitation or sadness. These can often be some of the more tangible ways of presenting disordered behaviours.
Having the knowledge that eating disorders are not “a choice,” nor are they driven by vanity, but rather, that they are about your child’s emotional and mental wellbeing, means that you are already more aware. Practising — daily — ways of coming together to communicate, both emotionally and more openly, may be a starting point to allow for the deeper struggles to come forward more easily. At the very least, it provides our children with a safer place to land.
Kyla Fox is a clinical therapist and founder of the Kyla Fox Centre at 174 Bedford Rd. offering women’s wellness programs and therapy for eating disorders.