Childhood Eating Disorders and How to Prevent Them

When I was growing up, my mother decided I was getting chubby. So she came up with what she considered to be a good solution – she began hiding food from me. And when it dawned on me what she was doing, I became very compelled to play out this unspoken game of hide and seek. I secretly tracked down every imaginable hiding place and would “steal” the food whether or not I was hungry for it. Her hiding food made me very anxious by sending me the following messages:

  • I couldn’t be trusted around food.
  • There was something wrong with my appetite.
  • There was something wrong with my body.
  • I needed to be controlled.
  • She needed to be the one to control me.
  • Discussing my eating in an open, friendly way would not solve anything.
  • I better eat whenever food was available because I didn’t know when it would go undercover again.
  • I felt rejected.

So, rather than being a normal, unselfconscious little girl, I became fearful and lost my inner wisdom that eating was about being hungry and enjoying my food.

In the 46 years of my being a psychotherapist of eating disorders, I have worked with women who struggled since childhood with similar eating issues. Paula cried as she recounted coming home every day from school for lunch; her mother wanted to monitor her calorie intake. While her thinner sister was allowed to eat everything, Paula was given limited choices and even her tomato soup was made with water, not milk, to reduce its calories. Paula become bulimic.

Linda described how her mother installed a lock on one of the kitchen cabinets and stored the cookies and candy out of Linda’s reach. And Carol – in one of the more horrifying stories I have heard – spoke of being in a traffic jam in the car with her parents. They would pull over on the side of the road, Carol was instructed to get out, and walk along the grassy edge to get in some extra exercise and burn calories until the traffic started to move, and the parents drove to pick her up. Carol became bulimic too.

Parents hopefully always want the best for the children but are often not sure how to prevent eating problems, weight problems, body image problems.

Prevention is the best medicine and, although there is no fool-proof way to protect your child, here are some strategies. Although they are simple, they are powerful!

  • Family meals - whenever possible - establish a warm, sociable connection between eating and chatting and sharing. Eating disorders are about isolation, so creating family meals brings everyone together to be nurtured emotionally as well as with food.
  • Your child should always feel loved unconditionally regardless of what they weigh. As we saw from the cases above, focusing on your child’s weight and appearance causes anxiety and self-consciousness.
  • Parents need to work out their own eating issues! Girls have told me in extensive detail their mothers’ worries about her weight and the various diets Mom has been on. Children should not be privy to their parents’ private self-criticism about their body. Parents: Let your children love you unconditionally regardless of your weight!

Being a parent can be glorious and gratifying but, at times, it can also be frustrating, confusing, and scary. You don’t have to be alone in determining if your child needs help. Just reach out. There is lots of available help.

Published in Recovery Warriors