One after the other, I placed an assortment of breakfast foods on the dining table. My ten-year-old eldest daughter has decided that she wants to be vegan, just like her cousins.
She has declared that she doesn’t like what happens to animals — specifically, the cruelty and slaughtering that happens in factory farms. She has decided to quit consuming animal products, including her favorite meal of all time — spicy buffalo chicken wings, and I am scared. Oh, I get it; truly, I do. I’ve even thought about going vegan myself.
Teaching our children about food
Ever since my girls have been able to feed themselves, I have been teaching them how to have a relationship with their body and the food they put in it. It is practiced in our home like some families practice religion.
“There are no good or bad foods” and “listen to your tummy” are common sentences in our home. Quite honestly, I’ve worked bloody hard to instill this message in my children — it is one of my proudest mummy-ing moments.
Only now, my stomach is full of fear and rage that bubbles with every mouth bite of food that my eldest daughter refuses to eat. Suddenly, it’s not okay for my daughters to honor their bodies the way they choose.
In my mind, my daughter choosing to be vegan and refusing to eat animal products takes my thoughts straight to “She’s one step closer to having an eating disorder.” I know, I know… just because she wants to experiment being vegan doesn’t mean she has an eating disorder. But, I am still scared. I never want my girls (or anyone, for that matter) to experience the pain and torture of an eating disorder.
An expert weighs in
Luckily, I have many friends who are parents and eating disorder experts, so I asked my friend and colleague Jen Lombardi, MFT, CEDS, CDWF, to share her thoughts on this issue:
“These are the moments that often paralyze me,” said Jen. “In these moments, I find that I have three selves holding a conference call in my brain: ‘the Clinician’, ‘the Recovered Self’ and ‘the Mom’. And all three of these people are trying to quickly get their points across:
The Clinician says — ‘You know that while some folks might be okay leading a vegan lifestyle, that level of rigidity doesn’t work for those in recovery. For the same reasons a recovered alcoholic can’t reap the health benefits of red wine, recovered individuals should be mindful that there may be certain diets that just pose too many risk factors.’
The Recovered Self says — ‘Oh no! This is it! This is the statistic bearing out! My kids are statically at a greater risk of developing an eating disorder because I struggled. We’ve got to intervene. Remember how everyone thought your ‘eating healthy’ was at first a good thing and only a phase? Do something!’
The Mom says — ‘Have we done all we can do educate? To instill balance? Have I modeled what I’m supposed to model? She’s trying to find herself, so how do I not stifle that and still keep her safe? Good grief, I’m stuck in the purgatory that ‘the Clinician’ in me often sees: terrified to say nothing, terrified to say the wrong thing and make it worse.’
I remember what it was like to be that age — to want so badly to fit in with friends, to be curious about why other people do what they do. In fact, this curiosity may have led to me becoming a clinician. And so, I choose to follow my curiosity with my children.”
We must listen to our children
Jen continues, “Follow your curiosity. Ask probing questions about what your daughter thinks about veganism, why her friends are eating this way, why it’s even an option. And really listen to her, so that she can teach you her perspective.
This can help you find clues and tools to help you stay connected. When we listen to our children, an interesting thing happens: they become more willing to listen to us.
When I talk with my own children, I don’t lie. I don’t hide that I’ve struggled myself with eating disorder behaviors, primarily because secrets never really help, but also because I don’t want to reinforce the silencing powers of shame.
And I help my children understand that while some people may be okay making these choices, they are not the right choices for everyone.”
I thank my friend Jen for sharing her wisdom with me. I love her advice on having safe, compassionate and candid conversations with our children — not judging or giving advice and not lecturing — but just truly listening to what our children have to say. This is the kind of conversation I want to continue having with my daughters.
Keeping the communication lines open will help to build trust and if — no, when — any issues arise — and let’s face it, issues will arise in life — we will have the tools to deal with it… together.