My daughter is not even 2 years old. The things she cares about the most are her favorite kid’s show, “Goldie and Bear,” her Flintstone’s multivitamin and feeding her cat. She is happiest outside, will say hello to absolutely anyone (over and over and over again until she is acknowledged) and has a laugh that is the sweetest sound I have ever heard. While she currently has few cares in the world (except for when she is hungry), there will always be this voice in the back of my head, reminding me that while there are many other factors involved in mental illness, research supports that at the very least, there a genetic predisposition towards disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), depression, addiction, anorexia, bulimia, etc. The list goes on.
When I think about my own experiences with mental illness and my daughter in the same sentence, I get the breath knocked out of me. I would do absolutely anything to protect her from all of that and more. But the truth of the matter is, her DNA is half mine, therefore she may be more likely to develop one or more of the lovely labels doctors have given me. It terrifies me that someday, my baby might look in the mirror and hate, be ashamed of and punish the person looking back at her. I also know if someone had given my own parents a guide on “How to Prevent Your Daughter from Developing an Eating Disorder,” they would have followed it to the letter. Unfortunately, there is no such book, and it seems that the number of people struggling with eating disorders is increasing. I have met more and more women who are trapped in the “religion of thin,” enslaved to the voices in their heads, and slowly wasting away physically, mentally and emotionally.
I know I cannot prevent life from happening to my daughter. I cannot control her life any more than I can control my own. I cannot make all her decisions for her — especially later on — and I cannot filter every single thing she sees, hears, experiences, feels, etc. It’s just not possible. However, I want to know I did what I could to use my own experiences and knowledge to her advantage. I want to be diligent in teaching her she is not a body, she has a body. I want her to know that while she is absolutely beautiful, she is more than her appearance. I want her to know without a doubt in her mind that she is strong, capable, loved and never, ever alone. I want her to learn that it is OK to have emotions and to feel them, that thoughts and emotions are just thoughts and emotions.
So how do I go about doing all that? Well, first I take a deep breath and remind myself I am human and am going to mess up. It is important, however, that when I do mess up, I talk to my daughter about it so that she knows making mistakes is not the end of the world, especially when we learn from them.
A therapist once said to me, “Falling is inevitable. It’s not ‘if I fall’, but ‘when I fall, how do I fall gracefully?’” Someone also once told me the first thing they teach stunt performers is how to fall. They have to learn how to fall so they do not seriously injure themselves. There is a good way to fall and a not so good way to fall.
Secondly, I have to be very aware of the things I say and the messages I communicate to my little girl. I have to think about what I am saying, how I am saying it and how it would be perceived by a child who takes everything I say as absolute truth (for the time being). This is probably one of the most difficult things as a parent to do, but in my opinion, one of the most important. If we are not intentional in the way we speak to our children, we will unintentionally and unknowingly cause damage that might take years to heal, if at all. I am going to tell you about the biggest example of words that both my husband and myself have been trying to use differently with our daughter.
These words came up one day when I was sorting through all her adorable little baby clothes, packing away what was in good condition, throwing away what was unrecognizable. She was watching me and pointing at the clothes, recognizing they were hers. Immediately, I went to comment back to her with, “You’re too big for these, Mia.” when suddenly it hit me. Why am I telling my child that she is too big for something? Why am I feeding her the very lie that spins in torturous fashion through my own head? You are too big. Now don’t get all defensive on me with, like “Oh, that means something different to little kids than to adults.” I understand this is very common terminology. I am not condemning anyone for saying it, and I will not be slapping anyone who says it to my child. I still slip and say it myself sometimes.
I just got this sinking feeling when I thought about it. When you put the “too” in front of the adjective, according to the dictionary, it means: “to a higher degree than is desirable, permissible, or possible; excessively.” So when we say something or someone is “too” anything, we are essentially saying it’s wrong. It doesn’t fit. It’s not right. Follow? So why in the world was I going to tell Mia the exact same thing my eating disorder tells me…that I am not right, that there is something not right about me, that I am too big.
The truth of the matter is, those clothes were too small for Mia. Her shoes get to be too small. Her bouncy seat became too small. The clothes and shoes and baby things, all the objects in this equation — those are the things that are not right. These things are no longer sufficient for my child to use. In this equation, the object is what needs to change. So, why do we say that the child is too big? The child is exactly the right size. The child’s size changes, but it is the size they are supposed to be. What becomes irrelevant, no longer sufficient, unneeded in the equation of why something doesn’t fit, is not the child. Do we expect the child to change their size to fit the toy or the clothes? No! The thing that we change is the clothing, the objects that are only functional for timely size and purpose. The clothes are dispensable. Not the child.
I know it seems silly and like I am overanalyzing one small little detail. I am very aware that just by telling Mia her clothes are too small for her when they do not fit her does not cure anything by any means. However, the point is, the message that kids hear from our mouths as adults and parents, can sound a lot different if that message is one that the child internalizes, holds onto and replays for themselves over and over and over again.
I want to continue to simply get to know my daughter. The better I know who she is the more easily I can spot who she is not. My friends and family knew something was wrong because I was not the person they knew when I was sick. Mental Illness is an illness of the mind. If someone is being a different person than they were yesterday, I believe there is a pretty darn good chance something changed in their mind. I want to be committed to getting to know my daughter, her strengths and weaknesses, her dreams and her fears, her likes and dislikes, all the things that make up Mia, so that if, God forbid, she starts to struggle, I will see it sooner rather than later. Early detection saves lives. Believe me.
So, just to wrap it up here and summarize.
Know you’re not perfect and make sure your kids know that too. Know that the words you speak to kids are not necessarily heard exactly as they are spoken. Choose your words thoughtfully and wisely. And really, remember what matters and what doesn’t. The person matters more than the object, so communicate that. Your child is exactly as they are meant to be, so communicate that. Get to know your kids. They’re people too. They want someone to talk to, someone to trust, someone to count on… you know, a relationship? But just like you have to be intentional in romantic relationships and friendships (they take work people!), you have to take the time to put the effort into loving and knowing your kids. And simply knowing your kids, goes a long way.
Again, I just want to emphasize that while my husband and I are trying very hard to be intentional about avoiding the phrase “too big,” or comments about size really in general, I am by no means judging anyone who chooses to speak that way, or condemn anyone who speaks to my daughter that way. It is my responsibility as her parent, however, to look at the little things I can do to put her at an advantage against a disease that tries to tell people they are the problem. I can tell her every day that while there will be many different voices in her life that say she is too big, too small, too slow, too emotional, too much of whatever it is, that she is not too much or too little of anything. The truth is, she is good enough just as she is.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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Unsplash photo via Tanja Heffner.