Your Rules Around Food Can Scar Your Kids. Here's How To Fix Them

Parents often model disordered eating to their children without even knowing it.

Originally Published: 
A girl and her mother eating salad and smoothies.

There’s no such thing as “good foods” and “bad foods.” You might think there is, but pushing that mindset on your kids sets them up for a lifetime of disordered eating — a problematic way of eating that can be a precursor to a full-fledged eating disorder. But when you raise kids without framing desserts and sweets as unhealthy, how do you stop them from slamming down donuts instead of fresh fruits and veggies? Especially when so many of the foods available to us — and marketed to kids in particular — are loaded with salt, sugar, and saturated fats?

Michael Enenbach, M.D., a psychiatrist and medical director at the Child Mind Institute who specializes in childhood eating disorders, suggests parents try to turn a blind eye to the question altogether. Instead, take a step back and stop worrying so much about your healthy child eating “unhealthy” foods — and then focus on their own eating habits.

After all, modeling disordered eating is the fastest way to pass it down to your kids. So where to start? Enenbach outlines a few general principles for us all, including how to present sweet treats to kids, disarm parents’ food anxiety, and unearth the complex role a family has in shaping how kids think about food and eating.

How do you find ordered eating in a disordered world?

Moderation, not deprivation — that's how I work with kids. I worked on the inpatient unit at UCLA for 12 years, and I'd have parents who were like, ‘He can't have any dyes.’ And then the child would get really upset because they couldn't have a cookie next to their peer. Deprivation is going to turn into disordered eating; moderation probably won't. One of the joys of childhood is getting ice cream or having a cookie or a lollipop. And that's totally fine.

What is a healthy policy around how you talk about sweets? Can you talk about them in a way that's not restrictive?

As a kid, my family had dessert every night after dinner. It was in moderation, and I wasn't overweight, and I wasn't diabetic, so it was fine. And my father would make us give up dessert for Lent. My mom would sneak me out to Baskin Robbins to get dessert anyway.

I think the moderation, not deprivation thing is so important. There are more well-proportioned desserts out on the market now. I'm an ice cream fan, and Coolhaus is a ice cream brand that makes ice cream sandwiches, and they make mini ones now. So I buy those instead of the big ones because I feel better about doing it.

So I think that there's a way to do it, but we have to monitor weight, glucose, diabetes, and all these things in kids now — which we should have been doing before.

I don't come from a position where dessert is bad or sweets are bad. I think when there is deprivation, then kids will seek dessert out on their own and buy candy bars from the market. And that's not regulated.

I have an 11-year old, and that personally is something I've run into: that my daughter is sneaking sweets.

That's normal child behavior too. But it probably happens more often if you're not actually providing sweets to them.

There's a lot of anxiety in parents about kids and food, and I think that anxiety often gets passed down. Could you walk me through a family that has a healthy relationship with food and what parenting practices lead to that?

Parents need to recognize that anxiety tends to be passed down and learned as kids, and recognize what they're bringing to the table. Because kids are impressionable. They're going to learn things from your behavior. If you're at the kitchen table counting calories on the box, they're probably going to do the same thing. Just be cognizant of that and recognize how your behavior as a parent is affecting your kid.

Kids with eating disorders often have a mom or a dad or a sister with an eating disorder. It's a matter of recognizing that and not normalizing the eating disorder or the counting calories or all these things, even though those are important things for nutrition. Looking at a box and knowing how many calories and what is a serving size, that's important. I don't see it to be a problem unless it becomes a problem.

And again, kids should indulge. But if they're overweight, then we need to intervene. We need to do something.

Once a child develops an eating disorder, how do you treat it?

Family-based therapy is the golden rule for eating disorders now: making sure the family is eating healthy with their kid. In my experience, 90% to 95% of kids with eating disorders turn the corner and get better. But early intervention is really important. If you're an adult in your 20s, 30s, 40s, it's harder to turn it around. Most kids can recognize it and work with us and turn a corner. But it's one of the most challenging disorders of psychiatry.

Family-based treatment for eating disorders is teaching parents how to eat with their kids and coach them while they're eating. Kids with eating disorders tend to micro-chew, or take really small bites. They can take an hour to eat a meal. So it's about teaching the parents how to coach their kids that it's been five minutes, we need to speed up what's going on. That's the evidence-based practice that's used pretty universally now.

Working inpatient, we would do meals every lunch. The parents would bring in a lunch that is from their culture or what they would normally eat, and then we would train them in sessions how to coach their kid. Outpatient, it's a lot less structured, but it's still teaching parents how to encourage their kids to adopt healthy eating habits. That comes off a lot better from the parent than it does from the psychiatrist.

Is there something that parents tend to say about food that they should be more reflective on?

The kids that I saw that were hospitalized, the dad would be like, “You're kind of chunky right now.” These little things that maybe the parent doesn't think are so important, really internalizes in kids. I saw it all the time. And it's like, that may seem not a big deal to you, but they're internalizing it.

What's your take on social media and food? Do you have any thoughts on how to counter-program what social media teaches kids about food and body image?

During the pandemic, eating disorders increased significantly. And why was that? Was it a lack of social support? Was it lack of supervision? Not having school lunches? There are websites about how to be anorexic, and I have kids who have researched it, and they're scary sites. Then, there’s social media in general: body image and celebrities and the Kardashians. It's a big player.

Moderation, not deprivation is best [when it comes to social media too]. There's ways to do it in terms of turning off the internet at 9:00 PM or whenever. You can go in and monitor what sites your kids are using. Don't be draconian about it, but be mindful about it. It's a challenge, because there's a lot of good things about having a phone for kids. They know when things are going on in the world. And the connection provides social support.

Anyone who is nutrition-focused gets so stressed out around the holidays. Do you have any advice on how to cope with a time where your kid is going to be swimming in candy?

Give your kid a chocolate bunny. It's not the end of the world. To deny all of that probably isn't the best thing. I mean, I buy a bag of mini eggs every Easter and I eat them and I'm okay.

I think it's important to have a conversation with kids. Hey, it's Easter. There's a lot of candy. Make sure we don't overdo it. Let's indulge and have fun with it, and whatever is within your Easter egg, have it. But I'm going to monitor how much you're having. It's the same with Halloween, coming home with a giant bag of candy. Maybe the parents should dole it out rather than having the kid doing it in their bedroom.

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