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  • Dina Cohen

Can I Prevent My Child From Developing An Eating Disorder?

Updated: May 28

This is a loaded question that's on many people's minds. Perhaps you've struggled with an eating disorder and don't want your child to suffer like you did. Maybe you know a child who has an eating disorder and you want to make sure that doesn't happen to your son or daughter. Even if you don't personally know anyone with an eating disorder, they're likely something you've heard about and they can sound pretty scary.

It's the most natural thing in the world to want to spare your child from pain, but is it possible to prevent an eating disorder?

Let's understand how eating disorders happen. They are biopsychosocial conditions, which means they are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Essentially, "The genes load the gun and the environment pulls the trigger."

Many people assume that eating disorders are caused by the media's influence, social pressure to look a certain way, and a culture that normalizes dieting. All of these environmental factors can absolutely contribute to the development of an eating disorder, but they do not cause it. Similarly, a history of trauma can increase the likelihood of an eating disorder, but many people who experience trauma do not go on to develop an eating disorder.

It may surprise you to learn that genetics play a significant role in eating disorders. This is particularly evident in anorexia nervosa. In fact, according to researcher Dr. Cynthia Bulik, 40-60% of the vulnerability to developing anorexia is due to genetic factors, whereas 30-50% is linked to environmental causes. An individual's personality traits and metabolic response to certain eating patterns can be due to specific genetic factors and can increase or decrease the risk for an eating disorder.

So what does this mean for you, the parent? As painful as it may be to acknowledge, you can't dictate how our child's life turns out. That's not something you were ever meant to control. Your child's genetic eating disorder risk is part of the amazing package he or she is, and that's not something you can change. What you CAN do is reduce your child's environmental vulnerability. This is something all parents can work on, but it's especially important if your child has:

a) a family history of eating disorders

b) amental health/neurological condition such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, or OCD

c) a medical condition that influences diet, such as diabetes

d) personality traits including perfectionism, rigidity, obsessive thinking, or impulsivity

e) struggled with weight or been bullied because of weight, shape, or size

Here are some things you can do to reduce your child's risk, along with links to articles that explain further:

Be a positive role model by working on your own balanced eating habits and body acceptance. Show your child how a variety of foods fit into a healthy diet by eating a variety of foods when you're with them. Help them see that body diversity is normal by not criticizing or shaming other people's bodies (especially your child's and your own). Teach them how to respond if they experience bullying or see others bullied.

Learn about how bodies change and grow during childhood so that you and your child know what to expect. Understand how growth charts work so that you're prepared when your child has a doctor's visit. The pediatrician's office can be a wonderful place or a very triggering place.

Get comfortable with positive feeding approaches. Focus on providing nutritious food rather than depriving. Learn how to set boundaries to ensure that kids and adults stay in their lane. This can prevent fights around food and make eating a positive experience.

Understand how food and feelings can get mixed up so that you can teach your child coping strategies that don't rely on food.

Do not put your child on a diet. If your child is gaining weight too quickly, please see your pediatrician to rule out medical causes. If eating changes are indicated, seek advice from a pediatric dietitian with eating disorder experience. Dieting is the number one predictor of eating disorder development. Teens who diet are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who go on extreme diets are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder! Dieting is also highly ineffective in keeping weight off for the long term, and most people who diet end up gaining more weight than if they never would have dieted.

Get savvy about the media's impact. Chat with your child about how the bodies we see in the media do not reflect reality and are not something to aspire to. Discuss how advertising works and teach your child not to fall for it. Monitor your child's social media usage and teach them how to protect themselves.

Don't waste time in seeking help. If you see any concerning signs in your child, including weight loss or gain, changes in mood, skipped meals or snacks, unusual eating patterns, physical symptoms such as fatigue, hair loss, feeling cold, spending lots of time in the bathroom, avoiding social activities, or anything else that worries you.

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