“Do you REALLY think it’s possible to prevent someone from getting an eating disorder?” Being a role model for your children is one way of teaching them self confidence. Fifteen years ago, I thought eating disorders were too complex for anyone to make a serious dent on the front end and thought the most I could do was steer people who were already suffering to a therapist’s office, but I couldn’t shake that question from 15 years ago.
In my gut, I sensed that reaching moms was the key. It is dipping down, reaching out to moms of babies, toddlers, kids and ‘tweens: moms who feel that what they say and what they do actually still matters to their girls.
I wrote The M.O.D. Squad Workbook (for Moms Of Daughters), basing it on the seven principles that form the basis of nearly all my work with my Eating Disordered clients. My intent is this: That mothers will become highly conscious of their own words and actions while helping their girls develop emotional coping skills that can buffer them from the unhealthy messages swirling around them.
Parents should be aware that certain children who are sensitive, anxious, and perfectionistic are more vulnerable to developing eating problems. M.O.D. Squad principles are particularly relevant for raising this type of kid.
Teach your daughter about eating disorders and be their role model
We all want our daughters to have a positive self-image and tend to be generous about telling them how beautiful they are. But what happens when we then turn around and disparage our own wrinkles, hips, and bellies? Out loud? In front of our daughters?
This negative self-talk sends the message: “This is how females in our family really feel about themselves.” This can sow seeds of self-doubt in your child because it’s tough for a girl to feel more confident or pretty than her mom.
Seeds of Doubt
- Sharing too many intimate frustrations about spouses, money worries, and/or conflicts with the extended family.
- Expecting them to look and act perfect or achieve academically, athletically or artistically to fulfill her own unfulfilled dreams.
- Compete with them, trying to diet into their smaller, designer jeans, want to hang out with their friends and share secrets.
Good boundaries help a child develop a sense of self—separate from you. Unfortunately, many of us grew up in families with poor boundaries, making it hard for us to have healthy instincts when it comes to these issues.
Let’s say you felt emotionally abandoned by your mom and vow to be close to your daughter. You may unwittingly end up treating her like a friend (and unconsciously hoping she will fill the hole in your soul left by your mom). Because she’s a great listener, you share your personal business with her. The problem is that she’s not emotionally mature enough to handle these adult issues. But you’re her mom, so she’s kind of stuck. She senses in her gut that something isn’t right, but she lacks the vocabulary to describe her discomfort. She figures SHE must be the problem, right?
Over time, she may struggle to define herself separate from your desires for her. If your kid is bright and sensitive she may feel ambivalent about growing up because she senses your discomfort when she pulls away. Also if she feels too controlled by you, she may need to rebel in a big and painful way (e.g. by doing the opposite of what you want), making the transition to womanhood fraught with conflict.
How does all this relate to eating disorders?
- One possible manifestation might be for her to restrict her food, especially if you are a dieter. This may be her attempt to please you (if you value self-control around food). Also an attempt to stop herself from growing up (since that does not please you).
- If she loses control and binges, she may purge the calories away out of her fear of your fear of fat.
- Or she may turn to food to calm her anxieties (especially if you are a “comfort eater”). Her weight and poor body image become the focus, rather than the underlying issues that are fueling the problem.
Your daughter needs you to be a role model, not a buddy. She needs to see you as someone who is comfortable in her womanly body and feels valuable enough to take care of that body. She needs to know that you get your needs met from your adult relationships (e.g. your friends, your husband, your therapist!) and that you do not expect her to take care of you.
So, Raise Your Right Hand and Recite the First M.O.D. Squad Principle:
I will put my daughter’s need for a role model above my desire to be her friend. I will remain aware of the powerful influence that my words, my own body, and others have in shaping my daughter’s beliefs and attitudes. Teaching her about beauty, fat, appearance, weight, and being an adult woman. I am committed to eliminating diet-talk and negative body-talk.
Disclaimer #1: These principles apply to Dads and sons as well.
Disclaimer #2: An eating disorder is not a choice. It is a mental disorder caused by a complex combination of genetic, personality, familial, social and cultural influences.