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Body image in adolescence is a growing concern for parents and psychological experts, whether their focus is on eating disorders or not. Congressional hearings in 2020 examined the role social media plays in teenagers’ self-esteem (among many other aspects of life). Clearly, body image impacts our mental health, and through that our happiness.

Body image isn’t created by social media alone, of course. It’s a complex factor in our personalities, easily affected by outside and internal factors, and in many cases, the people closest to a teenager impact their self-image.Although peer pressure, the media, and society at large all influence how we perceive ourselves and our bodies, there is one major influence that overrides all the others: the parents.

Does the Apple Fall Far From the Tree?

According to USA Today, body image in teenagers is most impacted by their parents – specifically, their same-sex parent. Beginning from the first days of an infant’s perception of the world around them, and especially accelerated in puberty (when the child begins to see themselves as an adult and usually begins dating), parents serve as role models, inadvertently or not. Social media is not to be blamed completely, and neither are the Hollywood starlets with their impossible-to-attain bodies and figures.

Thus moms tend to influence their daughters’ self-image, and fathers their sons’, although both parents play a role.This makes perfect sense in regard to how children develop their personalities and self-identity. Our parents are our role models, caregivers, heroes, and villains all rolled into one. With that in mind, here are a few reasons why parental influence is the most prominent factor in a daughter’s body image. Here are some ways this can occur:

1.Children Pattern Their Behaviors and Attitudes After Their Parents

The foundation of a person’s adult body image begins to form well before adulthood – even before adolescence. Little girls do a lot of things like their moms do, especially if they spend a lot of time with them. Just like a young woman may learn how to dress from her mother, she will also pick up on certain personality traits. For example, if a mother is constantly concerned that she needs to lose weight, her daughter may mimic those same concerns throughout her teenage years.

Fathers’ attitudes also influence their children’s attitudes. Although the prevailing stereotype is that women care about body image and men don’t, self-perception in males is just as linked to their feelings about their bodies. They may influence their sons by mocking a slight build or for being overweight, for example, which can lead to disordered eating or exercise patterns. Both parents’ attitudes about their partners can inadvertently affect the children’s thinking about “acceptable” body sizes and shapes too. A parent who criticizes their parent’s weight might inadvertently spark an “anti-fat” bias that can lead to disordered eating.

2. Disordered Attitudes About Food Can Be Taught

Our favorite activities, our politics, even the kinds of food we like to eat – so many things are influenced by our parents. This, of course, influences our feelings about weight and how to stay in shape. When a parent is outwardly concerned about losing weight and dieting or has a noticeably poor body image, impressionable children often begin to copy these attitudes.They also might begin to project them onto themselves. It’s a cycle that begins in childhood but can carry into adulthood.

A distorted and negative body image and preoccupation with weight are prime causative factors in the development of virtually every eating disorder. Directly or indirectly, parents’ weight-loss attempts and attitudes toward eating drip down to their children. In a direct sense, parents criticizing their children’s weight or forcing them to go on a diet can negatively affect their self-esteem and lead to disordered attitudes about food and eating. Indirect influence happens, too. A child observing a parent constantly counting calories usually begins to show the same tendencies when they reach adolescence and adulthood.

As a parent, you shouldn’t let fear of passing on disordered eating prevent you from taking care of your health and trying to eat well. Certainly, eating well is a huge part of living well. However, it’s worthwhile to be cognizant of how undue stress on weight loss can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem. Building an attitude of HAES (healthy at every size) will help young people balance good eating with a positive and realistic body image.

3. Many Eating Disorders Are Related to Genetics

Although eating disorders can come from a variety of factors, including sociocultural factors like race, gender, and economic status, several studies have shown that there is a genetic factor as well. One of these studies estimated that children of parents with an eating disorder developed anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa at a rate of 7 to 12 times higher than children whose parents did not have one of those disorders.

This means that in the nature vs. nurture debate, both parts have some influence on whether a person will present an eating disorder.  On the other hand, it’s important to remember that having a parent with an eating disorder is not a guarantee that an adolescent will be subject to the same fate.  The overall rate of eating disorders is about 1% of the general population.  That’s a significant number, being roughly 3 million people in the US, but many of those parents will not pass an eating disorder on to their children.

Keep in mind that eating disorders rarely occur without another form of mental health disorder also presenting. The most common are depression and PTSD. Coping with the negative emotions caused by trauma is indeed one of the most common triggers for disordered eating behaviors. These co-occurring disorders also have a genetic component to them; parents who suffer from depression or anxiety disorders should watch for signs of these syndromes as well as disordered eating.

What Parents Can Do to Promote Healthy Eating Practices and Body Image

With or without the presence of an eating disorder, parents should promote a healthy relationship between their children and a positive attitude about food, eating, and body image. They should put some focus on eating for pleasure and satiety, and encourage open communication about body image and self-esteem. The best way to do so is to lead by example; parents can match back up their lessons by eating well themselves – a child that sees mom and dad getting a nutritional food intake will be more likely to do the same.

In the same vein, parents should demonstrate body acceptance and the concept that people can be healthy at any size.  HAES philosophy is a major concept in the world of eating disorder recovery, but it is also useful to any parent that wants to promote positive body image. It’s best to involve kids early and often in meal plans, cooking, and enjoying meals together. Encouraging open lines of communication about self-esteem and body image is also helpful.

Of course, kids don’t always want to talk about these topics. Parents should allow for privacy, and forcing a lecture can be a tipping point or trigger for disordered behavior. Let them know about other resources such as support groups, peer groups, or even school resources. Avoid being critical and judgmental about your weight or your child’s – if weight is becoming a medical concern and you feel it must be discussed, remember to stay non-judgmental and open to discussion.

If an Eating Disorder Presents, Help Is Available

No parent wants their child to develop an eating disorder – but it happens. As a parent, the key to helping your child recover is to stay calm and non-judgmental. Panicking and having a confrontation lecture won’t help anyone. Remember that there are options. Treatment is available, and it begins with gentle, non-judgmental conversations about the problem. Enlist the help of a professional if it’s beyond your capacity; many parents wisely contact a child therapist before committing to further action. These individuals can help diagnose the problem and make further recommendations.

Because eating disorders often begin during adolescence, specialized treatment for teenagers with eating disorders is widely available. These programs can be in residential, outpatient, or even virtual formats. In any format, adolescent eating disorder treatment address psychological factors that cause disordered behavior and work on changing behaviors to be healthier. Parents shouldn’t worry about their child missing school; aside from eating disorder treatment being the most important step they can take for their child’s health; most programs contain tutoring and other educational components. Day treatment and virtual programs can be scheduled outside school hours as well.

Finally, these programs almost always involve the client’s parents. Education about the disorder itself and how to maintain the client’s recovery is offered to the parents, and the lessons imparted here can be used years after treatment ends. Family therapy is also standard practice, which can help both parties gain an understanding of the causes of the eating disorder. If your child is showing signs of disordered eating, don’t let a reluctance to talk about it get in the way. Reach out for help – recovery is possible.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.