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Binge Eating Disorder and Family Patterns of Self-Soothing

Article Contributed By: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC for Eating Disorder Hope

Family_eating_lunch_(2)The factors that influence the development of binge eating disorder (BED) are complex and involve genetics (your biological make-up), the environment of both your past and present, the social conditions you are exposed to, and much more.

One aspect that that can also be influential in the development of binge eating disorder is the nature of a family setting and the way in which children are taught to sooth themselves and cope with their emotions.

How Cultural Backgrounds Influence Eating

Many family traditions are garnered from the cultural background in which a family is raised or customs that have been passed down over years and generations. A common denominator among many cultures around the world is food.

Food can mean much more than nourishment and sustenance. It is often the center-fold of celebrations, special events, holidays, and customs. Food can become emotional as well. From infancy, we establish a connection with our caregivers based on how our most instinctual needs are met.

Certain foods become synonymous with comfort, are soothing, or console us with a flood of memories, like homemade chicken soup when feeling sick, or special baked goods with a close family member.

Connecting Food and Emotions – The Fine Line

While making connections between food and emotion is certainly natural and normal, there runs a fine line in the relationship that exists between our emotions and the food we consume. For some individuals, self-soothing with food becomes something that is taught over time in a family setting.

What are common ways this might be displayed? For example,

  • A child might be frequently given food as a reward for good behavior or performance.
  • Perhaps a child is bribed to act a certain way or complete a specific task with a special treat.
  • Or a child may be repeatedly consoled or calmed with a favorite comfort food.

While these acts in themselves are not harmful or a reflection of poor parenting, the reoccurrence of these behaviors may teach a child to begin to deal with their emotions in these ways alone. A disruptive relationship with food from an early age can evolve to an eating disorder, such as Binge Eating Disorder.

Culture Is a Huge Influence in Negative Ways as Well

Our culture is saturated with outlets that exacerbate the power of food in our lives. Even the most well meaning parents cannot shelter their children for the many ways that society distorts a relationship with food and our bodies.

With many forces seeming to work against a healthy relationship with food and body, what are practical ways that parents can exhibit these behaviors to their children?

The great news is that the influence parents have in their children’s lives will ring far louder that the unwanted chatter in the background. Modeling a healthy relationship with food can speak volumes to children, who are constantly observing behaviors that are being demonstrated.

Practical Ways to Cope with Food Emotions

Family_jumpWhat are some practical ways that parents and caregivers can teach their children to appropriately cope with the various emotions they may encounter throughout their lifetime without developing a dependency on food? Here are some suggestions that you can begin implementing in your home:

  • Have Family Dinners: In our world today that is constantly on the go, it can be difficult to find the time to sit together and enjoy a meal. Make the time in your family’s busy schedule to have at least one meal together each day. Not only does this give you a chance to reflect and communicate as a family, it will show your children that taking the time to nourish their bodies is important. Sharing a meal with electronics off and outside distracters at a minimum can be a constructive time of fellowship for every member of the family.
  • Spend time, not money: Some parents or caregivers may feel that materialistic objects help strengthen a relationship with a child or demonstrate affection; though the reality is, nothing conveys love more than time spent with your loved one. Is there an activity your child loves doing? Spending even a few extra minutes of uninterrupted time with your child can make a world of a difference to them.
  • Demonstrate healthy coping mechanisms: Children will often model the behaviors they see within their own home. Take the time to reflect on your own behaviors. How do you unwind at home after a long day of work? Do you frequently turn to food or alcohol to deal with difficulties? Try some alternative ways to cope, like taking nature walks, enjoying a bubble bath, or journaling.

As a parent, you can be encouraged and empowered by knowing that you have the ability to create a strong foundation for your child that will teach them to both love and respect themselves and their bodies for years to come.

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