Baylor College of Medicine

02/19/2020 | News release | Archived content

Maintaining your child’s relationship with food

Parents' habits often translate to their children, leaving a long-lasting impression on them, even on their relationship with food. Whether a parent or child has an eating disorder or a complicated relationship with food, it is important to understand the psychological influence eating patterns have on children, according to a Baylor College of Medicine expert.

'Eating behaviors begin very early,' said Dr. Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor. 'Children develop eating patterns in the first five years of life. Some even say eating habits develop in the womb, so parents need to be good role models early on.'

If your child is overweight, you must identify the root of the problem and reevaluate your food choices at home. According to Shah, restricting food from children is not the solution, as it could result in overeating and poor self-control with food. He also stresses that telling your child he or she is fat or needs to diet will destroy their self-esteem. If you choose to prohibit your child from eating certain foods, the whole family needs to restrict themselves from the same foods as well. Children pick up on their parents' behaviors, so if their role models eat well, they will too.

'You must change the whole environment if this is an issue. The best way to do this is to have the whole family eat healthy so you are not individualizing the child. This way, they won't think it's a punishment,' Shah said.

Parents or guardians suffering from eating disorders heavily affect children's relationship with food. According to Shah, an eating disorder is when a person's definition of appropriate eating is distorted. This includes anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. If a mother or father is anorexic or bulimic, they may see their child as overweight and not want to feed them as a result. If a parent binge eats, their child will likely imitate this behavior. Parents often suffer from eating disorders unknowingly. Their children could easily develop this, as eating disorders are hereditary, and kids often mimic their guardians' habits.

'About 50 percent of people with an eating disorder develop anxiety and depression. If a parent is enduring this, they must seek treatment immediately or it will translate to the child,' Shah said.

Children and teenagers can experience eating disorders through the actions of their parents. This is not limited to children of parents with distorted views of eating. Adults who feed kids with information about being overweight and dieting will hurt their child's self-esteem, which may eventually lead to an eating disorder. When a child is rapidly growing, parents are usually proud. Dr. Shah says when a child is at the top of the charts on the weight scale, this should be viewed as a cause of concern. If parents ignore this, it could result in a binge eating disorder. This not only affects your nutritional health, but it takes a toll on mental health as well. If you or your child shows signs of an eating disorder, seeking treatment is crucial.

Shah urges parents to promote a good relationship with food for their kids. Tips for doing this include:

  • Feed your children good quality food as well as quantity;
  • Children should not be forced to eat, but should eat when they are hungry;
  • Prioritize family meals around the table - this allows everyone to know what each person is eating, forming a strong relationship with nutritional food.