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How Can Parents Prevent Eating Disorders in Children?

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

With media exposure and diet craze running rampant in our society, parents can become worried about how to protect their children from its effects.

I know as a mother and a therapist we are specifically worried about how to prevent the development of eating disorders or other unhealthy food and body image behaviors in our children.

Where am I getting my information?

During my doctoral research I wrote and did research about eating disorders, but for my dissertation I specifically focused on mothers who were in recovery from eating disorders.

I wanted to identify the process of their recovery while they navigated the tricky role of motherhood. In this research I noticed many mothers had these same worries of preventing eating disorder development in their children.

Because of this worry they attempted to interact in certain ways with their children to prevent eating disorders.

I am sharing this in this article with you in hopes that you can learn something from these mothers who struggled with this dangerous disorder, but bounced back and are now living happy, healthy lives with their thriving children.

Statistics and risk factors for the development of eating disorders

First let's talk about the statistics on eating disorders and some of the risk factors that increase the chance of kids developing an eating disorder.

Yes, eating disorders are still a common occurrence, with over 20 million girls and 10 million boys struggling with eating disorders. There are also multiple different types of eating disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa is when an individual restricts their food intake to the point of severe negative consequences.

Bulimia Nervosa is when an individual enters a cycle of taking in large quantities of food and eliminating those foods through compensatory behaviors, like throwing up, diuretics or over exercise.

Binge eating disorder is when someone participates in a cycle of consuming a large amount of calories in a short period of time without purging.

There are also individuals who don’t quite fit these criteria but still have unhealthy eating and perceptions of body image.

There are also certain factors that increase the chance that someone might develop an eating disorder including history of trauma or sexual abuse [2]; being an athlete [4]; strict adherence to religion [3]; or Parental struggles with eating behaviors and weight concerns [5].

When children and adolescents perceive their parental communication and caring as low there is an increased risk for eating disorders [6].

Comments about weight (good or bad) and weight related behaviors in parents are also a risk factor for eating disorders in children and adolescents [7].

What to do if your child has an eating disorder or you suspect they do?

First, you need to make sure they are getting the appropriate treatment.

They may need to see a psychiatrist for medication, definitely a therapist to help them learn new ways to cope with their body image and eating behaviors.

They may even need a higher level of care, like residential treatment or hospitalization depending on their symptoms.

Get them plugged in with experts as to not be alone and give them the best chance for survival. Because eating disorders actually have the highest mortality rate of any other mental health disorder.

Find help for yourself. You need to make sure you are taking care of your needs so you give your children the best chance.

How should you talk to your children about food?

Remove the judgment around how you talk about food.

Food is just food, it is not good or bad. People in recovery spend a lot of their journey attempting to reduce the grip that food has on their emotions and perceptions.

By removing the positive or negative judgment of food and seeing it merely for its nutritional value, they can release the guilt around eating certain foods and actually reduce the desire to binge or restrict.

Through my research mothers tended to agree that the way they talked about food was not really talking about it at all.

Some mothers just had food available for their kids. Some would say that all food was food, but that sometimes your body needs other types of food to feel good.

They even talked to their kids about eating food that gave them energy (long lasting energy).

Talk to your kids about how food impacts their bodies to help them make food choices based on what makes them feel good (not short term gratification), but that long term feeling of wellness and energy.

Help them recognize their own hunger cues rather than forcing foods or struggling with them to finish the food on their plate.

If they are able to recognize when they are no longer hungry or when they are hungry than they will be more likely to avoid overeating or restricting.

Teach them that when they are hungry they eat and when they are not hungry they don't eat.

Cook with your children to get them invested in what goes into their bodies. They usually have more pride in it and want to eat the foods that you are cooking together.

My oldest daughter has been helping me cook since she was 18 months. It can be simply tasks like putting cut up food into a bowl.

Research also shows that having dinner at the table and having a positive atmosphere around family meals protects against eating disorder development [8].

How should you talk to your children about body image?

Because we don't have a lot of control over the media’s impact of body image research alludes to the need for mothers specifically to talk with children about self control and healthy eating and body image [9].

To reduce negative body image you should avoid placing any kind of judgment on bodies and appearance (good or bad).

When we place a high value on our appearance or our children's appearance then they are more likely to go to extreme lengths to seek approval that way.

Here is a blog post I wrote about ways to increase body positivity in your children.

What not to do or say to your children?

Do not put them on a “diet” without speaking with a nutritionist.

A nutritionist who works with eating disorder and children specifically can help you set up a food and eating schedule that is safe and does not depend on losing or gaining weight, but how to fill their body with nutritious food.

The only thing you should be removing from their diet without speaking to a nutritionist is if they are allergic to it.

Do not comment on your weight or your children's weight. In fact try to avoid saying anything negative about your weight. Don't say in front of them “I need to lose weight” or “I hate how much weight I have gained.”

Children pick up what we say and will determine their attitudes about food and body image based on what they hear others say.

Try to avoid limiting your child from a specific kind of food all the time. I get that a lot of parents are trying to avoid their children from eating all sugar or all gluten. Definitely keep plenty of nutritious food available to them.

But you should be more focused on teaching them to make healthy food choices. If we have too strict of food boundaries it can cause kids to grow up and over indulge when they are away from their parents supervision.

I usually tell my kids. “Let’s eat some more of what's on your plate and if you are still hungry then you can have a choice of something sweet”.

Then I usually give a choice of “do you want grapes or a muffin?”. Sometimes my kid will pick the grapes and sometimes they will pick the muffin.

But because I gave her the choice she feels more empowered to listen to her gut and sometimes she is not even hungry anymore because she ate until she wasn't hungry anymore.

Don’t control every aspect of their eating. Even if they struggle with an eating disorder putting strict boundaries around food can just increase their desire to try and get back control through their eating.

Because remember eating disorders is all about gaining control of some aspect of their life.

Make sure they have choices in their life and empower them to make decisions for themselves. This increases their autonomy and self esteem.

Stop telling people “Oh you look like you have lost weight”. I know this sounds like a compliment, but it just reinforces the value on losing weight.

If you want to compliment them on their appearance try commenting on something non weight related like “I love that color on you, it brings out the green in your eyes” or “You look so confident in that outfit”.

Don't have chaotic boundaries about food. I've already talked about not being to strict on boundaries but being too chaotic or inconsistent with our boundaries can also be detrimental to our children's perceptions of food.

If you have a boundary around food try to keep to it as much as possible as to not be inconsistent. If something is not working with that boundary then change it to fit your family better.

I hope you find this all helpful. Please let me know any questions or concerns.

About the Author

Dr. Heather Austin-Robillard has her PhD in marriage and family therapy. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Texas. She specializes in working with indivduals, couples and families who are struggling with a chemical or behavioral addiction. She has worked in several agencies including treatment centers, college counseling clinics, juvenile justice centers, and in-home therapy. She currently has her own private practice in Lubbock, Texas. She also is a full time instructor at Texas Tech teaching classes about addiction and recovery. She enjoys spending time with her husband and two beautiful girls and doing yoga.


[1] Austin-Robillard, H. (2016). Negotiating Motherhood for Women in Recovery from Eating disorders. Texas Tech Libraries of thesis and dissertations.

[2] Tagay, S.W., Schlegl, S., & Snef, W. (2010). Traumatic events, posttraumatic stress symptomatology and somatoform symptoms in eating disorder patients. European Eating Disorders Review, 18(2), 124-132. DOI: 10.1002/erv.972.

[3] Smith, M.H., Richards, P.S., & Maglio, C.J. (2004). Examining the relationship between religious orientation and eating disturbances. Eating Behaviors, 5, 171-180.

[4] Sundgot-Borgen, J., & Torstviet, M. K. (2004). Prevalence of eating disorders in elite athletes is higher than in general population. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 14(1), 25-32. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092966.

[5] Strober, M., Freeman, R., Lampert, C., Diamond, J., & Kaye, W. (2000). Controlled family study of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa: Evidence of shared liability and transmission of partial syndromes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 393-401. DOI: 10.1002/1098-108X(199005)9:3<239::AIDEAT2260090302>3.0.CO;2-7.

[6] Haudek, C., Rorty, M., & Henker, B. (1999). The role of ethnicity and parental bonding in the eating and weight concerns of Asian‐American and Caucasian college women. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 25(4), 425-433.

[7] Keery, H., Boutelle, K., van den Berg, P., & Thompson, J. K. (2005). The impact of appearance-related teasing by family members. Journal of Adolescent Health, 37(2), 120-127.

[8] Neumark-Sztainer, D. R., Wall, M. M., Haines, J. I., Story, M. T., Sherwood, N. E., & van den Berg, P. A. (2007). Shared risk and protective factors for overweight and disordered eating in adolescents. American journal of preventive medicine, 33(5), 359-369.

[9] Arnold, L. B., & Doran, E. (2007). Stop before you hurt the kids: Communicating self-control and self-negation in Femininity, Mothering, and Eating Disorders. Women's Studies in Communication, 30(3), 310-339.

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