A chip off the old block;’ ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ - these old sayings have lasted through the generations, probably because they make a strong point.
Their implication is clear – from their earliest years, children imitate their parents.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police certainly pull no punches on the issue: “Parents are their children’s strongest role model and greatest influence,” says the Force’s website. Your children will eventually adopt many of your values and types of behaviour…Your children will see your example - positive or negative - as a pattern for the way life is to be lived.”
A study published in the Oxford Journal in 2003 underlines this – it showed that parental example has a strong influence even on a child’s attitude to food and eating.
Researchers found that a positive parental role model may be a better method for improving a child’s diet than actually trying to control what the child eats. “Parents have a huge role to play in terms of developing a child’s interest, focus awareness and attitude to food,” says Dr Sarah Prasad Consultant Psychiatrist who specialises in adult eating disorders and is attached to St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. Parents set the culture around food and food habits in the home,” explains Prasad.
She believes parents can instil a healthy mindset towards food and eating in their children by ‘living’ a healthy lifestyle in general and avoiding any over-emphasis on children’s appearance, especially that of girls.
Healthy family eating however, should not be simply about eating fruit and vegetables but about eating a range of different foods, and enjoying treats as well, she says. “Young children should see food as everything in moderation. Food should not be a big issue,” she says, adding that parents should demonstrate that they too can enjoy ice cream.
Another issue is an over-emphasis by parents on their own weight, shape and image – this can send the wrong message to children already bombarded on all sides by print and internet images of apparent physical perfection, she points out. If a young girl believes her mum is buying into that mindset, warns Prasad, the child’s self-image and her attitude to food can be affected.
Parents should be particularly mindful of the often unthinking focus of society on how a girl looks, she says – with boys, she points out, parents often emphasise sporting or academic achievements, but there’s often huge focus placed on a little daughter’s appearance. “We must expand beyond looks and it must start very early on,” she warns.
By adolescence the peer group is hugely influential as regards eating habits – but mum can still be of help here, Prasad believes.
“I have young girls coming in with very low weight who are incredibly stressed and preoccupied about how they look and what their weight and shape is. They all want to look a certain way and all want to be accepted and that involves looking a certain way or having a certain shape.”
However, she says, if mothers can model healthy attitudes and a healthy lifestyle day to day, it will send a message to children, particularly daughters and help to moderate the other messages girls get from their peer group and popular culture.
“It’s really important that within a house there’s a value on a person which is not based on how they look,” says Harriet Parsons, a psychotherapist and Service Coordinator with Bodywhys, the national organisation which supports people affected by eating disorders.
Parsons believes parents should know that although their personal preoccupation with food or shape or diet may not be explicitly stated in the home - a diet-conscious mother, for example, may behave very normally around food and what her children eat - children may still pick up “implicit” messages about it.
Parents can also play a significant role in counteracting the negative messages about appearance that children and adolescents get from the slew of images in popular culture, she says. It’s important, she explains, that parents provide children with a ‘reality check’ by explaining that everyone is different, and that our sense of self should not hinge on the way we look.
Open communication within the home around what affects young people can provide support to a conflicted young person, she says.
“It’s important to say ‘I am here and I’d like to know what is going on in your world’” she explains.
Set the groundwork for an ongoing dialogue, suggests Parsons, and if you’re a dieter yourself, consider your own attitude to food and try to not get into distorted thinking in terms of yo-yo dieting, for example.
“Be mindful of how you feel about yourself and look at how you feel yourself.” If you feel your attitudes may be affecting children it would be helpful to consider why you’re doing what you’re doing, she says.
And never take any element of food or diet to extremes, Prasad warns:
“I have mothers who have spent much of their lives focused on diet, weight, and shape or on eating ‘very healthily,” she says, adding that taken to extremes, this can impact on the daughter’s self-image.”
Mothers and fathers need to express their opinions on food in a low-key way, she explains.
Parents should also realise that their perception of what healthy eating is may not be quite as good for children as they imagine, observes Prasad - sometimes a so-called healthy diet can be taken to extremes in a family, she warns, adding that this can then become very unhealthy eating.
“Some mothers come in saying they avoid dairy, or are vegan or don’t eat gluten, and the kids are brought up in a culture where the perception of what is healthy eating is distorted,” she says, adding that her role often involves educating families about what healthy eating really is.
Parsons emphasises however, that while parental attitudes to food can have an impact on a child, it is important to understand that eating disorders usually stem from a very complex mix of factors.
“It’s very important that parents don’t feel that anything they have done has caused an eating disorder.
“Parents can feel really guilty but they should know that there may be other influences on eating disorders and it is not down to one factor,” she says, pointing out that often an eating disorder is not really about food or weight, but about the person and about how they are feeling.
In this context focusing solely on food or weight can mean you’re missing the point, she says.
- Visit www.bodywhys.ie to download Eating Disorders – A Resource for Parents