The Dos and Don'ts of Parenting a Child in an Eating Disordered World

It is a telling sign of privilege when family life revolves around what's best for the children. In the stereotypical household, adults organize their time, night and day, around entertaining and enriching children's activities. The underlying sacrifice is unacknowledged, even expected, because who would dare not follow this parenting model. Brushing aside any remaining adult desires is a given, although the most pressing, if subconscious, ones become incorporated into the often unspoken family philosophy, thereby creating the myth of unity, as if the disparate personalities and needs of the family members can come together as one. Unity of purpose may have been an evolutionary benefit, but unity of mind--a cult of family--certainly was not. It is a dangerous precedent to equate psychological well-being with toeing the family line but that is exactly what the cult of family dictates. The ultimate conceit of the privileged family--the socioeconomic class most at risk for producing an eating disordered child--is not just the goal but the inalienable right to raise a happy and, using community-based measures, successful child. And that somehow, inexplicably, this must be what the child wants too.

Not particularly long ago, but long before the disordered eating epidemic, children were expected to fit into adult life. This was a time when there was living memory of a brood of children raised primarily to improve family survival. The pressure to make it far outweighed the luxury of nurturing a child's identity. Providing for children--maybe just surviving to adulthood--was enough; moderating feelings, massaging egos and micromanaging personal growth were not even on the table. They became who they were to become and, hopefully, followed the path laid out before them. Children were psychologically free since no one was terribly interested in what went on in their minds, unlike the current norm when nothing is private or sacred. These days children, burdened by the expectations meant to overcome their parents' personal disappointments, have their identity crafted like a shell made to order by their parents' exact specifications. Sadly, this happens long before developing any self-awareness, let alone a fledgling sense of identity, themselves.
This default view of involved parents has been seen as a sign of the evolution of the privileged family. No one questions the benefit of parent as de facto child psychologist, subtly questioning the kid like a little adult and unconsciously teasing the impressionable mind to tell the parent what he wants to hear. Parents used to know, instinctively, that kids simply played and learned for many years; the struggle for self-awareness, internal stability and personal direction, thankfully, came later. Now the false premise of making mini-adults co-opts the freedom of childhood for the personal satisfaction of needy parents. The inevitable pressure that builds between the desire to please with the innate drive for independence and identity has clear consequences, one of which is the temptation of food restriction and thinness.
It is humbling to see the well-intended parent guide children into the chaos of an eating disorder. It is daunting for the child not to see a way out. But the anti-tropes of the privileged family are never spoken: not every child is a prodigy; some kids get C's; different children have different strengths and weaknesses; achievement is not guaranteed from hard work; any difficulty in school is not by definition a learning disorder. Most importantly, a child's life is his to lead, not a second chance for parents to correct their mistakes or move past their regrets.
The path from prolonged, encouraged dependence on family to a focus on thinness and weight is a theme of this blog. The reward and praise for weight loss both satisfies proud parents and opens a new but false direction of independence and identity. The underlying message of a burgeoning eating disorder is clear to any adult who will listen: "No one can tell ME what to eat." This tidy package satisfies the cultural norm, especially during adolescence, while providing the simple solution any child craves. There is no gray area around disordered eating and weight, just a simple right and wrong. Encased in the pre-fab shell of identity and expectation, draped in the mantle of hope and unlimited potential, this child desperately seeks an escape. An eating disorder can be just that way out.
The attitude towards food and weight taught at home is a critical part of helping a child avoid the risk of an eating disorder, but the family message about identity and expectation is perhaps less obvious but equally important. The rise in the incidence of eating disorders has coincided with the transformation of family. Ironically, fostering the growth of a child's identity takes away from the freedom to explore and learn. The creation of the hovering, over-involved parent has stifled the experiences of childhood that lead to a sense of identity, with both accurate and flawed parts, that grows with time. But this ever changing sense of who we are is a freedom of being human, a right akin to the basic self-awareness and consciousness we take for granted every day. Recreating a world where we just pay a little less attention to the inner workings of a child's mind, where we grant kids a little privacy, may go a long way to stem the tide of eating disorders.

This post addresses the freedom for children to be allowed to become their own person. Part of the prescriptive approach to raising children stems from unhappy parents looking for salvation in future generations. That salvation is no longer something attainable, like the antiquated belief in the American dream. The family expectation is to become something great, something beyond one's imagination: the bar has been set much too high.  Under this pressure, the suggestion for a parent not to do something falls on deaf ears, especially in a culture which insists that something can always be done, someone can always be blamed--society, media, government, big business or parents. Then is it not just the moral but legal obligation of a parent to guide children through the maze of the modern world? The next post will address this vacuum: if a parent doesn't micromanage, then what should a parent do?


  1. Disordered eating may be seen by the physical manifestations, the outward appearance that helps define and diagnose anorexia or bulimia. The tell tale signs of the gaunt female whom uses symptoms rather then words. The bulimic that self soothes by binging and the high of the purge. These warning signs typically emerge during adolescence.

    Eating disorders, however, are not just for the young. This past Tuesday’s New York Times Health section (3/29/2011) includes an article “An Older Generation Falls Prey To Eating Disorders.”
    This article states that more women are beginning their downward spiral into the world of eating disorders in midlife or still later. No matter what age it appears that many of the triggers are still the similar. In adolescence expectations from family hinder the chance to find ones personal identity. In the older women there is still the need to be perfect and meet the needs of others.

    How does one characterize those, like myself, who fall between the cracks? I am a bit of an anomaly in that I was diagnosed later then most who suffer from chronic anorexia. My anorexia came on full speed ahead in my early twenties. Presently, in my early forties, I have been in and out of relapse and recovery too many times to count. I see much of my own childhood as something that was shaped by a “Cult of family,” which was pervasive in our home. I have two needy, over involved parents, always bitterly disappointed, no matter how hard I tried and still try to please.

    Throughout my adolescence, I would bring home a report card of almost all A’s, except for a C in calculus or statistics. There was never praise for what I excelled in, only down cast eyes gazing at me with utter disapproval. I attempted to please my dysfunctional parents in anyway possible. Never fulfilling their standards for greatness, I became the one with the dysfunction, the anorexic.

    Thinness was a fixation within my family. I mimicked my mom’s continuous dieting, her technique, to win my father’s approval. In my disheartened mind, thinness equaled love and perhaps, acceptance. I desperately wanted to be good enough, while trying to vanish physically and mentally from a controlling and frightening family. The only family I have who, still thinks they know what is best for me.

  2. Good stuff brother. Thanks for this.
    We all need a little room for play, imagination,
    and experience beyond means of necessity. There has to be more to that creative expression.

    Great blog.