A friend shared that her daughter had come home from kindergarten upset one day. Her lunchbox revealed a half-eaten sandwich. Eventually she said to her mother, “Why do you give me carbs if they are bad?”
As a professional in the eating disorders field, I am sensitive to talk about food, body and weight, especially in front of children and adolescents. I have heard and seen first-hand how devastating seemingly innocent or innocuous comments can be misunderstood or misconstrued in the mind of a young person.
As a parent, I am extremely aware of the pressures parents face from healthcare providers, family members, friends and strangers, to raise children that are healthy and strong in mind and body. There are constant messages online, in the grocery aisles, at schools – basically everywhere you turn – that can make you feel like you are winning the parenting game or falling incredibly short. All of this, while you may be juggling your own internal issues.
So how do we ensure that our children have a positive relationship with food and in turn with their natural body size and shape?
1) Make mealtime an experience.
I recently read an article about how children in France are taught from a young age that food is pleasurable, the same way in which a hug or smile releases feel good emotions. Food and meals are less about the act of eating but more about being a part of a larger experience.
If that mind shift feels like too much, start small. Have your child help you in the kitchen. Teach them about food and cooking, even if it is just how to make that peanut butter and jelly sandwich!
2) Stop, sit and enjoy.
It cannot be said enough, family meals are critical. Of course, given busy schedules it is not always possible, but aim to have family meals more days than not in any given week. Life can feel so hectic but the act of eating shouldn’t be rushed. Plan for this and model this for your children.
3) Acknowledge that you won’t always say or do the best thing in the moment.
You are going to say things that you regret, “No dessert unless you finish that meal.” Or “Why can’t you just eat like your sibling.” Or “No, Mommy and Daddy can’t eat carbs, we are on a diet, but you can.” None of these comments are particularly helpful to your child. Acknowledge it, learn from it and try to have some compassion for yourself. Parenting is stressful and sometimes, our emotions get the best of us. Take what you’ve learned use it to be more effective for tomorrow.
4) Do the best you can and when you feel like you need help, ask for it.
If you are considering changing your diet or your child’s it is in both of your best interests to consult a professional. Each one of us is unique, and because of this, we all require differing types and amounts of fuel to keep our bodies optimally functioning.
Also, if you are experiencing disordered eating or eating disorder thoughts and/or behaviors, seek help. It is so important that you take care of yourself in order to take care of others.
5) Remember children hear everything, whether they fully understand what it means or not.
So how did my friend handle the situation with her kindergartner? She approached the parents of the classmate and explained how that comment and judgment deeply impacted her young child. She acknowledged that the parents are trying their best but hoped that in the future they would consider the wider scope of how comments like these are heard and interpreted by younger people.
Kristin Brawn is the assistant vice president of marketing and community relations at Walden Behavioral Care. She is responsible for developing and executing proactive community relations strategies that raise awareness of the programs and services that Walden offers. To achieve this, Ms. Brawn works closely with Walden staff including executives, program directors and marketing and community relations associates to promote programs, events and new initiatives. She also maintains close relationships with crisis centers, mental health providers, dietitians and doctors in New England and leverages regional and national partnerships with key eating disorder organizations. Prior to joining Walden, Ms. Brawn spent a decade working for the nonprofit Multi-service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) in Newton, Mass. She began her career at MEDA as an office coordinator, but was quickly promoted to roles of increasing responsibility including director of project management, chief operating officer and executive director. As executive director, she worked closely with the board of directors to manage finances and raise funds to help elevate the organization. She was also responsible for coordinating MEDA’s national conference which included selecting speakers, overseeing conference advertising and marketing and coordinating volunteers. Ms. Brawn earned her bachelor’s from the College of the Holy Cross and her master’s from Boston University School of Public Health.