It was my freshman year of college and the girl who lived in the dorm room next to mine had just been dumped. She’d threatened to revert to the bulimia that had put her in the hospital the summer before classes started. Our well-meaning floor mates kept reassuring her, “You look great!” “You’re so skinny!” I listened, and winced. As a recovering anorexic myself, I knew that they were saying the wrong things. When my eating disorder was at its worst and someone would tell me I looked skinny, I didn’t hear “Stop,” or “You can eat now.” What I heard was, “What you’re doing is working. People do notice.” And it reinforced my negative behaviors.
Now that I’m a parent, however, I’ve realized that it’s not always easy to know what to say. Even though I know better when I interact with my friends’ daughters, sometimes I’ll slip up and comment if they’ve started a new sport and are losing weight. If you are worried that your child or one of his or her friends could be struggling with disordered eating, what can you say to help? Some expressions of concern may actually do damage. How can you determine if there is a serious problem? And if you think you might need to approach another parent with concerns about their child, how do you do it? I consulted some experts on how to talk to our kids about food and their bodies, both before we detect a problem as well as after.
1. Talk about food as fuel
This is a good tip for all parents (and people, really). Food is our fuel, and shouldn’t be treated like the enemy. When choosing language around food and weight, avoid words like “can’t,” as in “I can’t eat that,” or words and phrases that express a value judgment, “I’m totally going to be bad and eat this cookie!” Dr. Julia Baird, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and trauma, states that parents should “try not to qualify food by indicating that some foods are ‘bad’ foods (high calories, high fat, high carb), and some foods are ‘safe’ foods (low calorie).” Talking about punishing yourself for your eating choices, as in, “I’d better go for a run after eating that ice cream cone,” or “I’m going to pay for that popcorn later,” also can position food as the enemy.
2. Refocus your comments
We live in a society where thoughts about body image and control are so prevalent that it can take effort to rethink what you’re about to say. You may not even be aware of what you’re saying. When your daughter’s friend walks through the door, what are the first words out of your mouth? A comment about how she looks, even if it’s a relatively benign one not addressing her weight or body, reinforces the idea that her looks are seen first. Instead ask about that project at school they’re working on, the club they just started or compliment her new sweater. Dr. Jillian Lampert, chief strategy officer at The Emily Program, a national leader in treatment for eating disorders, thinks that it’s absolutely worth it for a parent to “examine if there’s anything they can do differently to support their child in having a different perspective.” These are good habits to practice when talking to children, even if you don’t think there’s a problem yet.
3. Use “I” statements
But what if you think it’s too late and your child or their friend might already have an eating disorder? Lampert recommends staying concerned and focused on what you’ve observed, using “I” statements to express concerns. “I’ve noticed that you’re eating differently,” or “When Sophie slept over last night I noticed that she didn’t eat much; have you seen anything?” if you’re talking to your child about a friend. Directly stating that you think they or a friend might have an eating disorder could cause them to clam up. Ask questions designed to draw the adolescent out, what Lampert calls exploring questions — is this normal at your school? Have a lot of girls been going on diets? — and follow up on yes or no answers.
4. Talk about their behavior, not their body
While you can call out behavior that’s worrisome — a lunch bag that’s coming home full, skipping meals or eating less at dinner, weighing themselves or binge-eating — do your best to avoid comments that address any physical changes. “You look so skinny!” or “You look fine,” are both problematic. Avoid saying anything “dismissive that supports societal norms around body and weight,” says Lampert. Baird recommends addressing their behaviors directly and focusing on health rather than weight, as “making the discussion all about weight and body size actually reinforces the eating disorder by bringing attention to the weight loss.”
5.Don’t pass judgment on someone else’s parenting
Once you’ve gathered enough information that you think you might need to talk to another parent, try to lead with compassion and concern. Those “I” statements still come in handy. “I’m worried…” or “I just wanted you to know…” are great phrases to start a sentence with. If you think the other parent may not respond well, acknowledge that gently from the beginning. “I’m really nervous to talk to you about this but I’m going to take a risk,” and don’t say anything about the other parent’s parenting skills or your perception of them.
Avoid passing judgment on how they’re feeding their kid or what they’re saying about weight at home, even if you’ve heard them saying worrisome phrases discussed in this article. As parents, we often blame ourselves if our kid has a problem in any area. We question our own parenting; if they’re struggling with reading, did we read to them enough as a toddler? If they’re a loner, should we have taken them on more playdates to develop social skills? A natural reaction to being questioned as a parent can be to become defensive or closed off, which is what you’re trying to avoid. Always lead with compassion and concern.
6. Educate yourself before speaking up
It’s not necessary to become an overnight expert on eating disorders before talking to another parent, but a basic understanding of some key issues may help. Lampert describes the combination of factors that lead to an eating disorder as three bubbles — cultural, psychology and biology, that only develop into an eating disorder when all three overlap (a Venn diagram). When I was going through treatment, the focus was on the psychology piece — control issues or grief and loss — or on the culture — the pressure on women to be thin, the societal rewards for conforming to the norm — but new research in the last 10 years has found that biology not only plays a role, it may be the most important component.
Kids don’t develop an eating disorder solely because of their parents, and knowing that may help another parent or you if it’s your child. While reframing your language can support their recovery or head off a full-blown eating disorder, speaking up with kindness and sensitivity helps dispel some of the stigma around eating disorders and may provide a vulnerable child a safe space to help.
If you need help for yourself or a loved one, here are some resources we recommend: