It is a topic underdeveloped in research and underappreciated among healthcare professionals: the anxiety that a person with an eating disorder history experiences when becoming a parent and having to guide a young child through decisions about food.
Knowing how to create proper boundaries and balance around feeding can be stressful for any parent, but “the extent of low self-confidence among parents with eating disorder histories is greater,” says Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, PhD, a visiting scholar at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Sadeh-Sharvit is leading a 16-week Stanford study to determine whether a focused parenting intervention can help parents of children up to age 5 in avoiding pressuring their child about eating and in communicating better with their child about food issues. The study is noteworthy in another respect, as it has begun including fathers with an eating disorder history in the study population.
“Although eating disorders are very stigmatized in women, there is even more stigma in men,” Sadeh-Sharvit said in a Stanford News Center article. “And men may not understand the potential impact of their eating disorder on their children, since feeding is, in many families, still perceived as an issue that mothers worry more about.”
For many parents who have struggled with an eating disorder, their initial experiences around their child's body weight or eating habits evoke painful memories of their own past struggle.
“Some patients will say, 'I was overweight. I got teased. Seeing the baby fat on my baby brings me back,'” Sadeh-Sharvit tells Addiction Professional. “I will do anything I can to [protect] my kid from that.”
Unfortunately, she says, when parents with an eating disorder history have these concerns, they often don't receive a great deal of useful advice from health professionals, who tend not to understand the full extent of their anxiety.
Stanford researchers are recruiting families with a child age 1 to 5 who has at least one parent with a past or current case of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. Funding for the study extends to January 2019.
The study intervention will teach parents skills for developing healthy eating habits in their children. Past research has shown that parents with an eating disorder history often try to exercise too much control over their child's eating habits.
The study will evaluate how the parenting intervention affects parents' cognition about feeding issues and their communication with their children about food.