A few months ago, I wrote about the difficulty a parent faces in raising a child in a world preoccupied with food and weight. The message that thinness and food restriction is a panacea for all the ills of childhood and adolescence is ubiquitous. A diligent parent is hard pressed to compete for airtime with the less appealing alternatives of family meals and traditional recipes. The age-appropriate drive for identity and individuality has become its own market-driven brand, and various forms of media have leapt on the bandwagon by adjoining the disordered eating and body image chic into a boondoggle for their bottom line.
Exposure is the first-line risk factor today's children face for developing disordered eating and perhaps an eating disorder. Offering the alternative story of food as shared time in the present and connection with a venerable past may not eliminate the risk--a veritable impossibility at this moment--but does give our children another point of view. Even if this proposed sanctuary from the relentless pressure to conform is soundly rejected, children won't quickly forget--they know all too well the norms they are railing against. In fact, rejection in and of itself can be the highest form of flattery from a child.
The last few posts add a different, and less obvious, dimension to a child's risk of becoming lost in the morass of food and weight. This has to do with personal story. In childhood and adolescence, one's story is tied to the family story with the child's occasional sidebar noted and retold (and, to the child's chagrin, often re-imagined) by the parent. A teenager will strive to find new storylines, hide them from meddling parents and keep and preserve them like secret treasure. These forays into personal narrative are baby steps to developing a sense of themselves and, within reason, need not just to be tolerated but cherished by parents. To prize the process of transformation of the child into an adult sends a clear and different message: I won't interfere with your becoming.
That remains the ubiquitous role for a child in the family: a sense of promise. The story of a child is about what is to be more than what is. Parents and children alike gloss over the daily routine to create the fantasy and hope of what this child might one day become. How many times does a child hear, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The dreams and hopes only reinforce the urgency of a teenager to become, but in hindsight the trumped up (and often embarrassing) storylines of an adolescent dissolve not behind what that child has become but behind the internal process of becoming. The true gift a parent or adult can give--the exigencies of being with an adolescent notwithstanding--is to allow this process to unfold.
The world of thinness and food restriction is especially appealing to the child who combines the process of becoming with the urgency to become someone else. This child feels deeply the sense that she will not be satisfied with any of the choices around her because she herself is not and cannot be enough. She needs not just a new storyline but a new identity to hide behind, with new goals to attain. The problem, of course, is that many, if not most, teenagers fall into this category for a time, and many subsequently fall under the sway of dieting and weight loss.
But most adolescents avoid the fall into the abyss of an eating disorder. The need to become someone else and the burning self-loathing abate enough so they can return to the process of becoming again. The tipping point appears to relate to expectations. In the eyes of parents, the media and the world around them, teenagers know that the process of becoming no longer ends with reasonable goals. It's the rare throwback of a child who is searching for stability and comfort and whose success means education and a steady paycheck. The urgency to become famous, notable or otherwise special has become the de facto goal for all children. The covert message is that becoming the next music star, movie icon, writer or athlete is within everyone's grasp. And how much of these outlandish expectations is supported by parents' unfettered hope for vicarious stardom? As the dreams dissolve into fantasy, the true test is whether the child can return to her fledgling story. If it is intolerable to become mediocre--as I described in a previous post--dieting and weight are ready to represent both the pinnacle and the end of becoming.
The next post will talk about what parents can do specifically for children who combine internal drive with a world of unrealistic expectations. How does a parent cope when that child does not meet her own expectations?