Even gentle and well-meant comments about your kids' weight can have an unintended downside: an increased likelihood that they'll turn to dangerous dieting behaviors. U.S. News recently sat down with five teens who were treated for anorexia at the Emily Program, a private eating disorders facility in Minneapolis-St. Paul, to find out what sent their weight plunging. Their moms sat in, too. Here are some of the comments the girls wish they'd never heard.
1. You're big boned compared to your sister. Even offhand comparisons can cause a harmful overreaction. "I'd overhear my mom saying to her friends, 'Katie's the bigger one,'" recalls Katie Million, a 19-year-old from Lino Lakes, Minn., whose shame contributed to her weight falling below 95 pounds during her sophomore year of high school. Although there's no way to protect children from every hurtful comment, parents can certainly avoid remarking on a child's weight—and insist that siblings do, too. Research has shown that kids who are teased are more prone to binge eating and other eating disorders.
2. Maybe this new diet will help. "I'm always hearing about how bad food is," says Leah Schumacher, 18, of St. Paul. "I would have liked to have learned about the positives of food, like why I need some fat to build cells and what fruits and vegetables do for my body." Million recently had a roommate whose mother sent her diet products and then complained on visits that her daughter hadn't lost enough weight. "I couldn't stick around for those conversations," she says.
3. I hated my body, too, when I was your age. With the best of intentions, Natalie Durbin shared the insecurities she'd had as a teen with her daughter Hannah, now 16, when Hannah was going through puberty. "I told her that I'd always been really thin but then started hating my body when I developed curves. I wanted to be really open about it in case she was feeling the same way," Durbin explains. Hannah, though, took it as a cue for how she should feel about her own developing body—especially since her mother was still uncomfortable with her weight. "She would tell me not to focus on my body image, but then she'd talk about how she hated her body all the time," says Hannah. "Now I think it's best if my mom never talks about these things with me."
4. You're such a talented athlete; let's crank it up a notch. One Emily mom who recognized running talent in her daughter encouraged her to join the track team and began to run with her to help her train. "I praised her, thinking I was building up her self-esteem, but never realized she hated [running] and was only doing it for me," says the mother, who prefers not to be identified. When the girl began adding extra miles and rapidly shedding weight, her mother was shocked to discover the response was a statement of how much her daughter hated the pressure of the track meets. Some kids have a natural drive to excel in sports, but if parents are doing the pushing, they may need to stop and reassess.
5. You look great! Have you lost weight? Nearly all the teens said they got praise from family and friends when they began restricting their food intake and dropping pounds. "You can put up with how painfully cold you are all the time," says 18-year-old Edie Kuss from Minneapolis, "and that you're so weak you can't stand up. What you crave is the praise—and that's what you remember even when it stops because you've gotten too thin."