By Denise Jorgensen, LPC
I can remember the moment like it was yesterday. My oldest daughter was just over six months old and beginning to explore solid foods. My mother in law was visiting and like many enthusiastic grandma’s, she arrived with a basket full of all sorts of goodies, but what caught my attention were some baby yogurt melts. I thanked her and quickly went to put everything away. Later on when no one was looking, I took the unopened bag of baby snacks and buried them in the trash. I had no intention of letting my daughter have these. These snacks had sugar in them and I wasn’t going to be the mom who let my precious girl have sugar. I was going to be the mom who fed her all organic, “clean,” “healthy” foods, not this “toxin” that would “ruin” her health! The next day my mother in law asked what my daughter had thought of the snack she’d brought and I quickly responded with “oh, she didn’t like them,” and promptly changed the subject.
As these words came out of my mouth, I couldn’t help but wonder… why was I so unwilling to let my child even try these? Why had I felt compelled to throw them away and then lie about it? These were behaviors I had engaged in during my old food rules days for myself, why were they coming back up with my daughter? As I sat with these thoughts, a deep fear rose up inside of me. My fear wasn’t about protecting my child from the “toxic” food. Yes, I wanted to feed her in a responsible manner that was helpful for her development. The fear that terrified me, however, had nothing to do with the food and everything to do with the realization that I was imposing food rules from my past onto my daughter before she could even speak. This fear of sugar was just one of many restrictive beliefs I had grown up with, which had contributed to over a decade of food struggles ranging from disordered eating to full blown eating disorders. I had spent years working to undo these fears and I was petrified that I was going to unknowingly pass these same food attitudes onto my child. I knew I had a blindspot and I sought outside help.
It was the first time I’d heard the term Intuitive Eating. I learned that one of the most powerful ways to help my daughter to have a positive relationship with food and her body was to model it myself. At this point I considered myself fully recovered from my eating disorder, and yet as I worked through the principles of Intuitive Eating I experienced a level of freedom that I didn’t know was possible. My recovery went from meaning I could resist the urge to engage in my eating disorder behaviors when they arose, to no longer having those urges at all. I finally felt true freedom from my food struggles and felt equipped to raise my kids in a home that encouraged this mindset as well.
My mom wasn’t trying to cause harm by imposing a no sugar rule, just as her mom hadn’t tried to cause harm by restricting my mom’s food intake, and so on and so forth. As with most parents, each of these mothers were doing their best with the tools they had. I had learned the harm these attitudes can cause and this was a generational mindset that I wanted to break. My oldest daughter is now 12 years old and I know that diet culture has and will continue to come after her, along with my three other children, because that is the world we live in. Ultimately, they will each have to face these pressures and choose how to respond. I hate this for them because the diet/thin-obsessed culture is relentless and no one is immune to its assault. At the end of the day what gives me hope is knowing that I’m doing what I can to help set them up to have a positive relationship with food and their body. I am by no means perfect at this, but I’m trying and that feels good.
Help! I don’t want to pass my food struggles onto my kids!
If you came from a family of dieting and body-shaming, I want to encourage you that this can end with you! Here are some tips to help make that happen:
- Practice what you preach! The good news is that it can feel very empowering to know you can influence your children by your own actions and at the same time it can feel like a colossal challenge. We often want things for our children that we struggle with the most. Acknowledging my fear of feeding my kids sugar was the beginning of digging deep and getting curious about what food beliefs were driving my behaviors. Learning the principles of Intuitive Eating has benefited not only myself, but my family as well. If you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend the Intuitive Eating workbook (https://www.intuitiveeating.org/our-books/).
- Be the gatekeeper of diet talk! When my kids were very young, I had a no-diet talk policy in our house. This meant that I did occasionally have some conversations with visitors as I politely (and sometimes awkwardly) told them those topics were off limits for little ears listening nearby. Nowadays, my kids are older and we talk about diets, but our discussion is based around the harm and dangers of diets. My kids often hear me say if you have questions about what you hear about food at school, let’s talk about it. We’ve dissected well intended, but misguided instructions from teachers and other influential adults around food. As our kids get older, these conversations will no doubt become more complex, but I believe keeping the dialogue open is important.
- Mirror mirror on the wall: What is your self-talk like about your body? So often we make comments about this or that being ugly or fat without even realizing we’re saying these things! Are these comments you would want your child to repeat about their own body? If not, how can you change the dialogue to celebrate what your body does for you instead? Genetics plays a huge part in our body shape. If we are critical about our shape, we are teaching our children to be critical of themselves as well.
- Praise the person, not the body: Be careful not to make comments about your child’s body. It is easy to understand how disparaging comments can do harm, but what is often missed is that even what we think are positive comments can be harmful. When a child is praised for their body, it can be tied to their identity and if their body changes, as so many do with puberty or time, this can lead to insecurities about their worth and identity. No doubt your child has a ton of incredible qualities.. the least of which is his or her body shape!
- Be careful what advice you follow: Exchange the influencers and experts who are pushing good foods vs bad foods and other restrictive/polarizing food language for ones who teach about anti-diet and body positivity. This might be one of the scariest thing because again as parents we want what is best for our children and a lot of doctors and “experts” are happy to give a list of dangerous foods to avoid for our childrens’ wellbeing and more and more diets are being prescribed for children in the name of medicine. It is absolutely understandable to want to feed your children foods that will benefit them the most nutritionally. At the same time, what if the focus shifted from eating all “good” foods right now, to having a good relationship with food for life? Ellyn Satter has some great resources on what this looks like depending on the age of your child. Learn more at: www.ellynsatterinstitute.org
- No shame in seeking help: When I sought help for how to feed my daughter, I was already a practicing therapist. It was humbling to admit that I was scared and didn’t know what to do, but it was also one of the best things I did for myself and ultimately my family! Find a therapist or dietician who works from an Intuitive Eating and HAES framework. You’ve got this!
If you liked this post, read more from Denise like: How I Overcame My Food Struggles and How You Can Too, Why Diets at Best Fail and at Worst Cause Harm, The Game Changing Power of Radical Acceptance.