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By Dina Zeckhausen Alex, a high school senior with flowing golden hair, described her ´perfectµ parents with more than a hint of disdain. ´I·m not exaggerating; when they were dating they were known as Barbie and Ken,µ she told me. Her Mom was a dietician; tall, thin and obsessed with healthy nutrition. Her father was a local newscaster with chiseled All-American features. Alex had an older and younger sister, both of whom had inherited their mother·s lanky physique. By the roll of the genetic dice, Alex ended up short and round. Beautiful in her own right, she felt like the odd girl out in this family of tall beauties. What Alex had inherited was her father·s penchant for swimming. Her muscular shoulders were the result of thousands of hours of swimming laps in the pool. And her dad had big plans for his talented daughter; definitely a college scholarship, but perhaps even a spot on the Olympic team. A college swimmer himself, he had quit the team his sophomore year, disappointing his father and himself. At the time, he decided he wanted a normal college experience and the hours underwater were taking a toll on his social life. But he had always lived under the shadow of ´the swimmer I could have been.µ His failure to reach his potential haunted him. When he discovered his second daughter·s natural gifts in the water, it re-ignited the burning ember in his soul. From the time she was small, Alex·s dad pushed her to fulfill what he saw as her potential (and his unfulfilled dream). He drove her. Hard. Over the years her father had invested thousands of dollars for swim coaches and consultants and never let her forget it. But his plans clashed with her desires. As college approached Alex, too, was burning out. While her passion for swimming waned, her dad upped the pressure, yelling at her in the car after mediocre performances. He refused to hear how unhappy she was. Eventually, with seemingly no other way to cope with overwhelming anger and helplessness, Alex started binge eating and throwing up her food. Her bulimia was her body·s way of saying ´STOPµ!! Alex·s parents brought her to see me when they discovered her eating disorder. In therapy she found a safe place to find her voice. She started to open up to her father with more
courage. Facing his daughter on her terms, he realized that his unmet needs had blinded him to the damage he was doing to the child he loved. He relented. Alex quit swim team. As a swimmer, she·d had a voracious appetite from burning so many calories; she was accustomed to eating large quantities of food. She started listening to her body·s signals and liked the new body that emerged. Her weight and appetite naturally recalibrated themselves. Alex started to pour herself into her REAL passion: singing. She applied and was accepted to a college with a strong music program. Once she had the freedom to listen to her inner desires and express her true self, her eating disorder abated. And her father learned a humbling lesson about the limits of his control. How many of us as parents need to learn this difficult lesson? How do we cope when our agenda for our kids clashes with their desires for themselves? As parents we wrestle with these issues every day; when should I hold the line? When should I let my child determine his fate, even if it looks like a mistake? Is there room for compromise? When a child develops an eating disorder, it may be a sign that the balance has tipped. As a parent, listen for the signs: eating disorders are not always about body image. Sometimes our children resort to using their bodies to send a strong message when words are falling on deaf ears. Raise Your Right Hand and Repeat The M.O.D. Squad Principle #6: BALANCE SAFETY WITH CONTROL While mindful of her need for safety, I will give her age-appropriate opportunities to make decisions and to deal with the consequences of these decisions. Even when her ideas, tastes and preferences are different than mine I will try to support her decisions so that she feels a reasonable sense of ´controlµ over her own destiny. #### Disclaimer #1: These principles apply to Dads and sons as well. Disclaimer #2: An eating disorder is not a choice. It is a mental disorder caused by a complex combination of genetic, personality, familial, social and cultural influences. #### To start a M.O.D. Squad group, visit www.MyEdin.org.
Dr. Dina Zeckhausen is a nationally-known psychologist who specializes in treating adults, teens and children with eating disorders and body-image issues. She is a regular ShareWIK.com columnist and the author of the children's book, "Full Mouse, Empty Mouse: A Tale of Food and Feelings." You can visit her on the web at dinazeckhausen.com and MyEdin.org.