I read a great blog entry a few days ago on parents, adolescents and body image-- topics that have been on my mind a lot lately due to the nature of my work! For parents who are trying to navigate the rough waters of a child or teenager who is struggling with an eating disorder and poor body image, it can be daunting and difficult to know how to respond. For this reason, I often recommend a great book to parents called The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders, written by Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto. I had a chance to ask Dr. Herrin a few questions which I will share with you below; she happened to also write the blog entry that I mentioned. Whether or not you are a parent, I think this information can be helpful because you likely have parents yourself, or parental figures in your life, or maybe you know young adults, children or teenagers that you work with, mentor, teach, volunteer with, etc.. While some of this info may not apply directly, some of it can be adapted to encourage healthy attitudes with food. To access the blog that Dr. Herrin writes with Nancy Matsumoto (who is doing some exciting work with athletes and eating disorders that I look forward to sharing with you soon), followthis link- the blog entry is copy and pasted below as well.
Watch Dieting and Bad-Body Talk in front of your Kids
In brand-new, not yet published research, my friend and colleague Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and colleagues at the University of Minnesota and the University of California, San Diego have found that messages from parents about weight and body image have a significant effect on adolescent body image. I have worked with a number of families in which a child, usually a daughter, is all of a sudden worried about her weight triggered by a parent who is dieting and/or talking a lot about how much she (or he--dads can have an affect here too) doesn’t like her body. I tell parents that if they are going to diet, DON”T TALK ABOUT IT!! in front of the kids. Dianne’s group also found that when parents when parents eat well, overweight teens tend to follow their example. Watch for this study:Family Weight Talk and Dieting: How Much Do They Matter for Body Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating Behaviors in Adolescent Girls? in next issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
I think that it is important to point out that parents are not to blame for eating disorders!- however, there are ways that a parent can impact her child for the better and support the child in such a way that is effective! I had the awesome opportunity to ask Marcia Herrin, a nutritionist specializing in working with eating disorders and weight issues, a few questions, and wanted to share some of the helpful tips that she suggests for parents. Dr. Herrin is very respected in the eating disorder field- she founded the Dartmouth College Eating Disorders Prevention, Education and Treatment Program. She has a masters in public health as well as a doctorate in nutrition education. She currently runs a private practice and works with children and adults struggling with eating disorders and weight issues. For more information on Marcia, follow this link.
Me: You and Nancy have partnered together in your book The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders. This book provides a lot of very helpful information for parents who may be worried about their children's eating attitudes and behaviors. If you could share two or three helpful tips for parents raising children, what might you say to them to help them to encourage healthy attitudes about food?
Marcia: Do not comment on your child's weight. Eat together as a family as often as possible. Do not talk about dieting or weight issues (yours or anyone else's) in front of your child. Do make sure lunch and dinner meals include protein and dessert.
Me: If you are a parent who suspects that your child is struggling with food, whether an eating disorder or disordered eating, what steps might you encourage them to take to help their child?
Marcia: First call your child's doctor or your area's most respected expert for their assessment of the situation. Then talk directly (calmly and kindly) to your child about your concerns and observations. Let them know that you are worried but not mad. In our book we say if you are "open, receptive, curious, honest, tentative, and work hard at understanding your child's point of view... no matter what words you use, your chances of success will be greater."
Me: Chapter 8 in your book is wonderful. It touches on body image and the ways that our own body image affects the body image of our children (and by extension those around us). Can you share a little bit about how a parent's negative or unhealthy view of their body or food can affect a child? Do you have any advice for parents who struggle with their body image or self-esteem?
Marcia: "Keep it to yourself" is the advice I give parents about their own struggles with body image or self-esteem. One of the riskiest situations is when a child observes one parent teasing the other about their weight or eating habits. Parents, even if they struggle to believe it themselves, need to preach "it is not what you look like that matters; it is who you are as a person and what you do."
Me: You write about PAMS (Parent-Assisted Meals and Snacks) and appear to have much success with this model, which has been adapted slightly from the Maudsley method. Can you share the heart behind this method and the success that you have seen with teenagers that you have worked with?
Marcia: One strength of PAMS comes from "saving face." When parents take over responsibility for the eating disordered child's food, the child has to eat even if she doesn't want to. She doesn't have to give up her eating disorder. She can relax knowing her parents aren't going to let her starve to death. She doesn't have to agree to eat, she is made to eat. PAMS helps parents know what and how much to feed their child. Some parents can figure this out on their own, but PAMS helps parents who are stressed and overwhelmed by their child's eating disorder hit the ground running with an approach to food that works. I have been in the field of eating disorders for nearly 25 years and I have never seen any other technique turn an eating disorder around as dramatically as PAMS does.
For more information on PAMS and other related topics, check out The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders. If you are a parent who struggles with body image or food, the most important thing that you can do for your child is to work towards being healthy yourself! Whether that means seeking out a nutritionist, a therapist, or a consultation with your doctor, it is critical for you to be the very best you that you can be, for you and for your children! When Marcia says 'keep it to yourself' regarding your struggles, she means do not talk to your children about it. But it is okay and vital to talk about it with professionals, friends and family members if you are dealing with these feelings and behaviors.