How parents can trigger eating disorders without even knowing it

Showering kids with certain compliments may actually lower their self-esteem. Parents need to watch their choice of words according to Dr. Megan Jones, a Stanford University psychologist. She says that parents are involuntarily triggering confidence and body image issues in their teens.

Dr. Jones, who is the Chief Science Officer of Lantern (– a California-based organization that helps promote and researches mental health, gives parents a list of do’s and don’ts when flattering their kids.

Don’t Say:

  • You look like you’ve lost weight.
  • You are such a healthy eater.
  • That shirt looks amazing on you.

Do Say:

  • You look like you’re glowing.
  • I’m glad we got to see each other for lunch today.
  • The colour of that shirt really brings out the blue in your eyes.  

Anne Devereux-Mills, a colleague of Dr. Jones, is the executive director of the Healthy Body Image program at Stanford and Lantern’s chief strategy officer.

According to Anne, instead of focusing on a child’s looks, parents need to concentrate on their minds (e.g. complimenting their creativity). She, also, explains that praising their discipline on eating healthy is not right if they lack discipline in other areas like schoolwork – it just reinforces that bad behavior.

Anne says that parents need also be careful about what they say about themselves around their kids. Comments like, “I look fat” and, “These pants make my butt look big” should be avoided. “Negative self-comments made by a parent can become played back very rapidly in a child,” she explains.    

Anne, herself an eating disorder survivor, says growing up while watching her mother diet incisively made an impression on her that was “challenging” but she didn’t realize it then. 

And it’s not only teens that moms and dads need to be cautious around. Anne says that kids start to worry about body image at an early age.

“I had a kindergartener daughter,” she explains, “who came home from kindergarten and said ‘Mom, I’m not going to eat anymore because I want to be a model.’” Kids might not show a concerning behavior until their teens but the ideas behind them form earlier on.

“Five percent of women actually have the body type that is featured in advertising,” says Anne. She adds that understanding this isn’t the norm and “finding ways to make your children feel good about themselves as whole human beings is really important.” 

The pressures of body image are relevant for boys too, says Anne. They want muscles and to be strong and a lot of times eating disorders come from working out excessively, she says. Parents need to motivate their sons to be healthy but not over-stress being fit just like they need to prompt their daughters to be healthy instead of skinny.

Here are some tips from Anne Devereux-Mills:

  • Don’t compare your children to others or celebrities.
  • Do encourage them to be the best selves they can be.
  • Don’t say: “You look like a model or Barbie”
  • Do say: “You have a great sense of personal style.”

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