Could Parenting Styles Cause Eating Disorders?

Research has shown that children and youth who diet are much more likely to develop eating disorders. In fact, the earlier that dieting begins, the more likely a significant eating disorder can occur. Body positivity begins at home; many parenting ways can help children naturally develop body positivity.

It is very normal and expected that children put on about 10 pounds a year during puberty. That’s part of development. In fact, we need body fat for energy, to protect the organs, and to support cell growth. However, sometimes the weight takes off before the height kicks in. And that’s when parents start to get concerned. Maybe saying to themselves, “Oh, they’re getting a little chubby… Maybe I better not offer cookies anymore.” But that is the wrong thing to do. Instead, give your child a wide array of foods to choose from. Also, encourage outdoor activity by doing something fun and active with them.

At Sanford Behavioral Health, we certainly don’t want family members to feel guilty. We are asking parents to take an honest look at their habits. It’s not easy initially, as we live in an environment obsessed with diet and fitness culture. I encourage parents to look at their own attitudes on eating and food. Our eating disorder program team is here to help address these issues and understand different parenting styles. We are committed to helping families understand how parenting style can influence their child’s health, growth, and development while decreasing their risk of developing an eating disorder. To learn more, contact us today at 616.202.3326 to learn more about resources for eating disorders.

The Connection Between Parenting Styles and Eating Disorders

Parenting styles can have a significant impact on the development of eating disorders in children. While parenting style is not the only factor to be considered, certain parenting models can increase the likelihood that a child develops disordered eating. A parenting style that emphasizes an idealized image of beauty can pressure a child to achieve it and encourage dieting and unhealthy weight-control behaviors. Conversely, parenting styles that promote unconditional acceptance and healthy body image can help prevent the formation of disordered eating beliefs and practices. These parenting styles include:

  • Open communication – Motivating children to talk openly about their feelings and worries can help them develop healthy coping skills when faced with life stressors rather than self-medicating through food.
  • Reasonable limits – Establishing reasonable boundaries around eating is important for overall health. Parents should strive to create a positive family eating environment by setting a good example and avoiding unnecessary rules.
  • Positive self-talk – Encouraging positive body image and self-esteem in children is essential in helping them to develop healthy attitudes toward food. Parents should always be mindful of their language when talking about bodies and food and refrain from making negative comments or comparing their children to others.
  • Encouragement – Supporting a child’s goals and celebrating successes is important in promoting healthy self-esteem and the development of a positive relationship with food.

Children who receive constant criticism or feel constantly judged may also be more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. Thoughtful parenting encompasses teaching children how to make healthy food choices and fostering a secure, unpressured environment where children feel accepted and empowered.

Parenting Styles to Help Children Develop Body Positivity

According to documents from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), here are some ways a parent can help their children develop body positivity.

Stop Talking About Weight

Don’t criticize your own appearance. Value yourself more for your character. Learn the difference between weight and health and concentrate on health-enhancing behaviors. At Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders, we practice the health at every size (HAES) approach, which honors body diversity and encourages movement for health and enjoyment, not to lose weight.

Make a List of People You Admire and Share it with Your Children

Practice taking everyone seriously for what they do, not how they look. Give boys and girls the same opportunities and responsibilities. Work for and speak out for the rights of those with marginalized identities—fairness, equity, safety, respect, and control of their bodies.

Encourage Critical Thinking About Media Messages

Talk with your children about the pressure to “look good” and the ways in which media images are manipulated. Discuss the dangers of dieting. Teach them to be critical viewers of social media. In fact, consider limiting their access to social media. We know negative body image correlates directly with the use of social media platforms.

Stop Weighing Yourself

Get rid of the scale. Do not equate certain foods with positive or negative behavior or morality. Eliminate commenting on weight or body size—period. Don’t diet, and don’t ever restrict calories for your children.

Concentrate on Things You like

The more you enjoy your life, the less critical you will be of your body. Learn to accept compliments graciously. Focus on family, friends, and faith. Those things bring true joy from within. Tell your children frequently that you love and accept them just as they are. This builds self-esteem and body positivity.

Get Physical for Fun

Choose to move for your heart health, not to change the size of your body. Any kind of movement can help. Do something together as a family. Have fun. At Sanford Behavioral Health, we integrate experiential therapy into the recovery process whenever possible.

Spend Your Money Wisely

Support retailers who portray diversity in their advertising and hiring practices. Research the businesses whose values align with yours. Support them. Consider carrying a note card listing these businesses as a reminder. Teach your children to be responsible shoppers.

Voice Your Opinion

Write letters, send emails or call about products you won’t buy. State the reasons why. Businesses really do want to hear from you and may respond with change.

Be a Role Model

Notice, in a complimentary way, how people vary. Express appreciation for body diversity. Don’t judge others by their appearance. It should not be more acceptable to practice “weightism” than any other form of prejudice.

Break Barriers

Stand for what’s right. Many inspirational people have blazed new trails in body positivity. Help your children recognize and celebrate achievements made by them. Seek friendships with like-minded others.

Get Help from Sanford Behavioral Health

If your child is struggling with an eating disorder, contact us at Sanford Behavioral Health. We can help find the best-individualized treatment plan for your child and family. When families have the resources and support they need, recovery is possible. Together, we can make a positive difference in your life and that of your child. We believe in the power of hope, healing, and resilience. Let us help you and your family through this tough time. Contact us today at 616.202.3326 to learn more about our eating disorder programs.

gail hall bio pic

Gail Hall is a licensed social worker, certified Eating Disorder Specialist, and Supervisor with the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals. She has been treating eating disorders for over 30 years. Her organization, Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders (now Sanford CTED). provides state-of-the-art treatment in a personalized, intimate setting in Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan, and beyond. In addition, Sanford CTED offers residential, PHP, IOP, Supportive Housing, outpatient, and family support to eating disorder patients.