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How We Learn Disordered Eating As Kids

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosabulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders, are among the most common mental health diagnoses. They come in different shapes and forms, although all share one thing- a problematic relationship with food. Generally, eating disorders are less frowned upon than other psychological conditions and are considered physically life-threatening. However, most people still don't understand that awareness can help prevent their emergence in many cases. According to the NHS, most people suffering from eating disorders are between the ages of 13 and 17. Most of these have acquired their condition through learning disordered eating habits throughout their childhood. Although unintentionally, many parents promote unhealthy habits from an early age in several ways. To understand how these affect children, let's discuss how eating disorders come about through parental behaviours. Before unveiling these, it is important to understand what eating disorders entail.  


Most people affected by one of its types substitute dealing with emotions or difficult life situations by eating, refusing to eat, or avoiding certain foods. One's relationship with food also affects their self-image and unacceptance of their weight or body shape, which can, later on, lead to issues like body dysmorphia. Common symptoms include self-consciousness around one's weight, excessive exercise, eating too much or too little, depressive episodes, and mood swings. In more severe cases, symptoms can cause physical problems such as body weakness, tiredness, feeling cold, poor blood circulation, digestion problems, and weight abnormalities. 


The causes of eating disorders are still ambiguous. Generally, these are caused by being criticised for weight or eating habits and feeling pressured to conform to social norms. Often these emotions are induced by parental behavior and attitude toward food, whether it is their own eating or their children's. This is especially likely to harm kids if one or both parents have a medical history of anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. These illnesses can be subconsciously projected onto children from an early age.


Parents are responsible for their children's well-being from the first day of their lives. Unfortunately, due to the lack of social awareness about upbringing, especially the psychological aspect of it, many parental figures don't realise to what extent their behavior affects their little ones. As early as when the time comes for infants to start eating solid food instead of being breastfed, they develop a particular relationship with it. Many parents, worrying too much about their baby's weight, start force-feeding them. This frequently entails compelling children to finish everything on their plate despite being full or eating foods they might not like just because they are healthy. The primary danger consists of a distorted perception of food as a chore that needs to be completed rather than as a healthy habit that can also be enjoyed. One may start looking at food as something unpleasant or even repulsive, causing disorders like anorexia. Others might have a problem with regulating their food intake once they grow up due to constant portion control by their parents. They might learn to never leave any leftovers and finish everything they have cooked in one sitting, which can lead to obsessing over food and become a basis for disorders that involve overeating. 


Another way parents promote eating disorders is by labeling food as "good" or "bad," "healthy" or "unhealthy." Of course, some foods are better for one's body than others. It would undoubtedly be wrong for one's child to survive only on crisps, candy floss, chocolate, and fast food. However, for a kid continuously discovering the world, these words may mean something totally different from what is intended. In their adult lives, these children may start avoiding "bad" foods altogether and fixating on healthy options instead. This may lead to feelings of sadness and self-consciousness and fear of losing or gaining too much weight when eating even a little bit of something deemed wrong.


Since preteens and teens are highly emotionally dependent on their parents, they can naturally adopt some of their feelings. So, for instance, if a mother or a father constantly worries about their body image, is anxious to over or undereat, is ashamed of their appearance, or is constantly on a diet, the child may start viewing this as normal. Particularly if talking about weight abnormalities, food restrictions, or aesthetic displeasure with one's body becomes a habit for the parents. Thus, diet culture becomes a permanent part of their world, and they never learn healthy eating habits because no one is promoting them. 


Parents dissatisfied with themselves often feel the same about their children's appearance. They feel the need to control their child's weight for health reasons and, once again, promote an unhealthy relationship with food and the child's own self-image. Some can even use the word "fat" to indicate "unhealthy" when talking about weight or appearance. The meaning parents attach to the term is usually not negative, although children memorize it in its true sense. A child who regularly hears "fat" about themself involuntarily becomes obsessed over their weight and looks.


Although most parents mean well when controlling their children's eating habits, it is still a slippery slope. Indeed, eating disorders aren't only caused by parental attitudes. However, since it plays a crucial role in the kid's psychological development, like any other event in one's life, it may harm the psyche long-term, leading to severe mental health problems. Learning self-destructive behavioral patterns from an early age will make these harder to break in the future and may possibly require therapy. To avoid this, it is important that every new parent stays aware of their actions concerning food and finds the most comfortable way to address these issues. The eating environment at home should be positive, safe, and open. This doesn't simply mean changing one's attitude towards food in terms of one's child, but also in terms of oneself. Mental health always starts from within and undoubtedly influences everyone around. Therefore, once the parent is healthy and stable, the child is less likely to develop food traumas such as, avoiding patterns, binge eating, sneaking meals into their room, or lying habits.

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