When I first learned from an amniocentesis test, that the baby I was carrying was a boy, part of me was relieved. Having recovered from an eating disorder, I believed that in contrast to girls, boys were less likely to be concerned about things like body fat, and thus my son would be less apt to develop an eating disorder. Although male cases are rare, boys can still be at risk. In fact, this is not surprising, since one of the underlying causes of eating disorders is the desire to avoid feelings, thoughts and life situations, experiences many people can relate to.
My son Regan is now an adult. I learned a lot about how to raise him from my life experiences, reading books, my family and other mothers. Perhaps the tools I have applied the most are those I learned from my own recovery. Eating disorders are about avoiding ourselves. Initially we use food for comfort, because we want to avoid an uncomfortable feeling, thought or situation. By either under eating or over eating, we use food as an escape. Alcohol, drugs and cigarettes accomplish a similar effect. Recovery is about learning how to face, rather than avoid, our feelings, thoughts and life situations. Prevention is about teaching ourselves and our children to do the same.
As parents, we sometimes wonder if we are doing the right things for our children. In fact, it is helpful to look at our own behavior, recognizing that our actions are the most powerful teaching tools we possess. If we use food, alcohol, drugs or cigarettes for comfort, we are teaching our children to do the same. Our children are like sponges. They absorb everything we do and they imitate the very behavior we model, both healthy and unhealthy. In addition, we need to examine the kinds of comfort tools we find ourselves naturally applying to a situation. If your toddler has fallen and hurt his knee, or your youth is experiencing hurt over a disagreement with a friend at school, how often do you find yourself offering food as a consolation? Many of us grew up with cookies and milk to comfort us during troubled times. Unfortunately, cookies and milk are comforting only in the short-term. In the long-term, whatever feelings were suppressed with food, remain stored inside, creating more layers of an onion - waiting to emerge at a later time.
One of my bulimic clients recalls her mother giving her bread and honey when she felt badly. Many people can relate to a tendency to make things better with food. I was tempted to give Regan treats when he was upset but I didn't do it because I knew that if I did, he would learn to use food to avoid pain, disappointment and uncomfortable situations. Instead I told him feelings were a part of our lives. We need to just feel them. While growing up, you may have heard, "Don't cry honey, it's okay." This message, even when given with love, is clearly saying, "Stop crying. Stop feeling those feelings." This teaches the avoidance of feelings. The solution is simple. We need to FEEL our feelings and teach our children to do the same. The hurts, disappointments, rejections, and fears are all surmountable if we simply address them. And here's the miraculous part about feelings: if you let yourself feel them, they melt away like an ice cube in your hand. That layer we have faced and felt, is done and gone. Another layer may emerge but that one will also pass if we FEEL it. Also I reaffirmed to Regan that by feeling the feelings, they would melt like an ice cube and be done. This was comforting to both of us. When either Regan or I were crying I always affirmed to him that it was good to cry. I did not hide my tears from him. I modeled how to be manage feelings. However I did keep deep emotional work private and away from him. For example I faced a lot of aloneness being a single mother. I would set aside a Saturday night to watch a sad movie for the purpose of having a big release with my crying. My son would be at his father's or fast asleep and I would do my work.
I teach people that we are a four-part system: mind, emotions, body and spirit. All of these parts need our attention. When it comes to the mind, I speak about negative mind-talk. This refers to our tendency to be unkind to ourselves. Children are often critical of themselves. When Regan was a child he sometimes said that he didn't like his hair, his body and on occasion even himself. We talked a lot together. With regard to his hair, we discussed getting a different cut. Later at the hairdresser's I let him tell her what he wanted. When it came to his body, I explained that he needed to love his body. I told him that what we think, can happen. I gave him the example of a person, who is driving a car and saying, "I'm going to have a car accident, I'm going to have a car accident, what if I have a car accident." I then asked him what might happen. He said, "that person is going to have a car accident." I explained that it worked in a similar way with what we tell ourselves. I encouraged him to use positive words about his body and himself. If Regan had been over weight I would have told him the same things and I would have helped him exercise more and look at the food choices he was making.
Finally, if you want to prevent eating disorders and foster good health in your children, it is very important to teach them about their own inner source of wisdom. Call it gut feelings, instincts, inner wisdom, or just plain intuition, I have learned that it is our Soul's way of communicating wisdom to us. If we avoid our emotions and give credence to negative mind-talk, our natural source of wisdom is covered up by all those negative feelings and unresolved issues. This can cause much discomfort and over time, can cause a person to start using food, or some other substance to avoid the pain. By teaching our children about their intuition we are taking more steps towards the prevention of eating disorders. The intuition is a quiet signal that we can sense either by feeling, hearing, seeing or sensing. The intuition is also available to us to guide us in what we need to eat. Generally speaking it is helpful to let children learn what their bodies' signals are about the food that is needed. Studies show that children left to choose food over a period of several days eventually choose all of the food groups.
Saying phrases like, "You're not leaving the table until you've cleaned up your plate," may have enhanced the children's ingenuity, as they invented ways to hide peas in their napkin or pass meat to the dog at their feet, but this will not teach people to listen to the needs of their own body. It is when we insist that our children eat this or that, or that they 'clean up their plates', that they lose touch with their own inner guidance. They are listening from the outside and not the inside. In time they lose touch with their physical signals and eat what they are told to eat.
Here are some examples of things I did to bring awareness of this inner guidance to my son's life. The meals I gave him always contained vegetables, complex carbohydrates and protein. I never made him eat, instead I encouraged him to try a bit of everything. What he ate from the food groups was up to him. I told him to listen to his stomach, in other words to an aspect of his own inner guidance. I know from the studies I mentioned above that if he listened to his body and he ate more from one food group than another, it was because his body needed more of that particular food at that time. Over a period of time such as a week, I trusted that he would eventually eat the different food groups. I also knew that if any food was denied such as desserts, at some point it would be overeaten.
There were times when I did some guiding. For example, sometimes Regan wanted a treat before dinner. His favorite was chocolate candies. I would tell him he could have a treat after dinner. Sometimes he was upset and that was okay. At dinner, if he had only eaten a few bites of food, I would say he must eat a little more. If he didn't want more dinner then he forfeited the dessert. Usually he ate a few more bites and then I allowed him the treat. I reminded him again to listen to his stomach. I allowed him to eat as much of the chocolate candies as he wanted. By doing so, he was getting to know how his own system told him what it wanted and when enough was enough. Only once or twice did he eat too much of a sugary treat. He then told me he didn't feel good. We talked about how he didn't listen very well to his signals inside. He learned quickly.
On the other hand, there are also some children who need more guidance for example in how many carbs they eat such as bread, potatoes or pasta. Sometimes there is a desire for these children to choose more carbs than other foods. It is important to guide them to eat veggies, proteins and fruits and not just fill up on carbs. I have observed several children with this tendency and with the guidance of their parents they have become balanced eaters. Another example of children and eating are the children who do not eat enough. If a parent argues with the child about eating, often the child won't eat more. A successful strategy that one family used had the parents encouraging the child to eat 5 bites of this food group or that food group. Rather than arguing the parents simply maintained that boundary.
We are all doing our best in how we raise our children, no matter what we do. The important thing I remember is, if I am to be successful at ensuring my child does not use food to avoid his emotions, I must practice the following:
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