As a new year begins – and the inevitable wave of health-related resolutions go into effect – one West Virginia University researcher reminds parents in particular of the critical role they play when it comes to shaping their children’s self-image and lifelong relationship with food.
According to Elizabeth Claydon, assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, eating disorders and other weight- or eating-related disorders pose an intergenerational cycle of risk. She and several of her School of Public Health colleagues explored these risks in a 2018 study.
“Based on Social Cognitive Theory, parents can positively or negatively reinforce certain behaviors or ideas around eating, dieting and food through modeling or feedback,” Claydon said. “For example, children model parental behavior and adopt values towards weight and dieting, whether positive or negative, including parental relationships with food and/or body image.”
Depending on how it is modeled, dieting, in particular, can lead to harmful consequences.
“It is important that parents are aware that children are likely to model their dieting behavior, and that dieting is one of the main triggers for a child or adolescent who may have a genetic predisposition for an eating disorder,” Claydon added.
In addition to modeling behaviors, children also internalize parental indirect and direct feedback. Indirect feedback includes parental dieting or parental negative comments about their own weight, while direct parental feedback involves feedback targeted at the child – for example, negative comments about the child’s weight or shape or encouraging the child to diet.
So, what does this mean for parents who want to make health-related lifestyle changes and/or who want to instill healthy habits in their children?
According to Claydon, who strongly advocates for people trying to change lifestyle behaviors to be healthier, it comes down to intentions and how they are framed.
“Behavioral change around food and exercise should be done for health, not necessarily in the pursuit of weight loss,” Claydon advised. “If a parent wants to make some changes, the main thing to remember is how they talk about those changes with their children if they ask. Don’t frame the changes in terms of weight, but rather, in terms of health.”
She offers additional guidance when it comes to framing behaviors and conversations:
• Make sure to have regular meals with children, despite any dietary changes.
• Talk about food in terms of what it can do for your body, rather than focusing on “good” and “bad” foods, as moralizing foods can lead children to attribute those qualities to themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, if they consume them.
• Talk about bodies in terms of functionality and physiology rather than their aesthetic value; e.g., have a conversation about how your body can help you move or how it can help you think better when you nourish it well.
Claydon, who wears many hats – researcher, assistant professor, student mentor and, parent – acknowledges that adhering to such guidance is sometimes easier said than done.
“As a parent of a five-year-old, I recognize it can be challenging,” she said. “For instance, it is not always easy to remember to talk about food and bodies in certain ways when we have been steeped in a culture that has taught us differently all our lives.”
But, given the risks, it’s important to try. Claydon knows from firsthand experience.
“As many of my students and colleagues know, I always have something to say on this subject, so I try to put it into practice in my home life, too,” she said. “Becoming pregnant with my son was the main reason I drew myself out of a relapse of my eating disorder, and he is the strongest reason why I am so firmly committed to my recovery.
“We cannot expect our children to have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies if we cannot first have a healthy relationship with our own.”
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