Mums, Are Your Words Causing Your Child to Develop Eating Disorders?
A mother's negative comments can have great impact on her children's self-image and can even cause eating disorders to develop down the road
“I think you gained weight”
“You’re getting fat, stop eating so much”
“Maybe you should start exercising more?”
“You’d look so much prettier if you were thinner”
These are just some of the harsh comments some kids may have heard from their mothers while growing up, and may even stick with them for life.
As well-intentioned as they think they are, when mums pick on their kids about their weight, do they know that this can negatively affect their children’s self-esteem and potentially cause eating disorders to develop?
Why do mothers pick on their children’s weight?
Dr Rebecca M. Puhl, director of research at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and lead author of the study on weight-based victimization, explains that “What we see most often from parents is teasing in the form of verbal comments.”
These comments may include nagging their children about eating too much, or criticizing how they look in a particular outfit, or even trying to bribe them into sticking with a diet.
“There still remains the widespread perception that a little stigma can be a good thing, that it might motivate weight loss,” says Dr. Puhl, who is also a clinical psychologist.
Parents who struggled with weight themselves when young might also think that their criticism will help their own children somehow.
But research done at the Rudd Center and elsewhere have shown that even well-intentioned comments about weight from parents and other adults (such as pesky relatives during Chinese New Year, Hari Raya or Deepavali!) can trigger eating disorders, use of laxatives or other dangerous weight-control practices, and even depression.
Negative impact on children’s self-image
A recent collaborative study between the University of Exeter Medical School, James Cook University, Singapore and the Australian National University has found that in the Asian culture where fathers are more authoritative and mothers more nurturing than in the West, negative comments made by Asian mums had more impact on their children’s self-image regardless of gender.
This research which is partially funded by the Singapore Children’s Society and published in the journal Body Image, reveals a growing trend of Singaporean children developing eating disorders, and the numbers are now on a par with the UK.
Although the issue of eating disorders is most prevalent in girls, there is now an increase of boys who are being diagnosed with eating disorders too.
Treatment of eating disorders
Currently, in Singapore and across Asia, the Western approach is being used for treatment of eating disorders.
However, researchers from the same study argue that due to cultural differences, a more tailored approach is needed to educate Asian parents and to treat young Asian people effectively.
Lead author Samuel Chng, a PhD student from Singapore at the University of Exeter Medical School feels that more research is now needed to stop the problem of eating disorders to spiral any further.
“Cultural family values are very different between Asia and the West, yet countries like Singapore have adopted Western strategies for this growing problem.”
What you can do to help
If you are guilty of ever commenting about your child’s weight and you want to avoid hurting their feelings again, here’s what you can do:
Have a positive body image
If your child always hears you lamenting about how fat you are or how it makes you feel ugly, then this, in turn, will make her think that a distorted body image is normal.
Don’t forbid food
Avoid labelling certain foods as “bad”, because it is healthy for your kids to learn to have all foods in moderation and by forbidding these foods, your child might actually want it even more!
Create a healthy lifestyle
It is a good idea to cook healthy and nutritious meals for the whole family and plan some fun activities where everyone can stay active together.
Don’t talk about other people’s bodies
Constantly pointing out how thin someone looks, or how fat they are, will only make your kid learn that body shape is very important.
Never make negative remarks about your kid’s weight
Refrain from criticizing your child’s appearance and avoid using hurtful phrases like thunder thighs, batwings, bubble butt, or spare tyres to describe them physically – even if it was meant in jest, as this can wound deeply and affect their self-esteem.
Remember to focus on your child’s other positive qualities such as her talents, abilities, dreams, and goals, instead of just targetting her outward appearance.
Even though research has shown that negative comments from Asian mothers have a greater impact on their children, fathers should also be more sensitive about the choice of words that you use on your daughters and sons.
As parents, you have the power to easily bring your child to the top or tear her completely down.