June 18, 2024
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June 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Birthday Cake Is for You, Too

Friends of mine warned me that the “threenager” phase can be much worse than “terrible twos.” No matter the age, parenting a toddler can feel challenging. So when my older daughter was in her 3s I found myself paying for a parenting course to learn a bit more about what leads toddlers to act the way they do, furthering my understanding of development. The course also went through very tangible scenarios and tools and one such tool was around modeling.

The teachers of the course described the desire parents have to teach their children to speak or make requests politely, for instance. We tend to push children to say please, reminding them constantly. Or we might wait after they make a request before fulfilling it for the “thank you!” from their little mouths. But they proposed that the much more effective way of cementing this behavior would be by modeling; when parents, guardians and/or siblings are conscious to consistently say “please” and “thank you,” toddlers become children and adults who regularly speak this way. Sure, parents may also actively remind their children to speak in this particular manner, but the modeling is what ingrains the pattern.

You might be surprised by how many clients inform me that when growing up there were no rules placed on them regarding food. Pantries were stocked with every type of food group; snacks were whatever the child’s taste preference dictated at the time. (Yes, there are countless individuals struggling with eating disorders who experience the polar opposite, but let’s focus on the former group for now.) They share this as if it is a surprise that their relationship with food and body image then developed into disordered thoughts and behaviors. My next question to my clients is always “Tell me about the relationship your parent(s) had with food.” And I am not sure I have ever heard a client share with me anything but, “Oh they never allowed themselves to eat freely or intuitively — but they let me back then.”

There is such a disconnect between the recognition of the threats of an eating disorder and the acceptance that dieting is one of the leading causes of said eating disorders. It feels as if everyone we know is cutting out foods, monitoring movement or engaging in an obsessive manner with food all in the name of wanting to manipulate his or her weight, shape or form. While some could claim it is about health, most people who say this, when really exploring it, learn that it is less about health and more about self-worth or the false promise of confidence based on looks.

It’s not the first time I’ve written these words in my column and it will likely not be the last. Because for some reason, people tend to understand the gravity of the term “eating disorder” but deny the way disordered relationships with food still take away from living and can lead to deeper suffering.

So people keep to their diets. They feed their children the hamburgers but don’t eat the burgers themselves, opting for something else which can work for a time until their bodies are so deprived that they can no longer restrict. People pack the variety of snacks but would never partake in their own child’s birthday cake unless this is carefully thought out. And kids notice. They notice everything. They notice when their parents don’t eat in front of them; they notice when their parents grimace at reflections or photos; they observe when food is called good or bad or adults around them demonize foods or themselves. They don’t simply observe, they absorb. In their growing minds adults are unhappy with how they look. Many adults have a disordered relationship with food. And whether they want to be just like mommy now, or tuck this away for later under the belief that, “When I grow up I guess I won’t eat freely anymore either,” kids establish building blocks that will create a wall of a disordered relationship between their brains and bodies.

There can be times, for other reasons, that parents may eat differently. And this can be discussed. But, dear reader, if your immediate response to this article is to think of all the examples I’m overlooking, I encourage you to settle back into the ultimate message: the way we view ourselves is directly modeled to our children. We want our children to accept themselves, to grow, to not get bogged down by societal standards. And while we can promote these messages with our words or what we allow them to do, the messages will be truly ingrained when we behave this way. And this can be challenging — to unlearn what we know, to throw away what feels like a safety net or coping mechanism. But this will not only lead to healing and acceptance of your inner child — especially when done with support — but will also allow your child to blossom into a more confident and whole self.

For those who think, “What I do doesn’t really have an impact” or “Everyone diets, this isn’t an issue,” I beseech you to recognize that I write this information not based on a personal opinion but on the work I do and on the knowledge from my field: you can accept yourself without a diet and live a fuller life, teaching your child or those around you to do the same. It is possible and the first step, while likely very difficult, is yours.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Zucker is an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a metro New York consultant at Monte Nido. Zucker is honored to now serve on the board of Atzmi. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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