One day your child was happy and carefree, and the next she or he seems moody, depressed, and has stopped eating.
The reason children develop eating disorders ranges widely. According to Mayo Clinic, it could be that he or she wants to join an activity that requires participants to be lean. For example, cheerleading, gymnastics, ballet, etc. Or it could be due to pressure from his or her peers to be thin. And yes, even children under 12 can begin to feel this pressure. In a Common Sense Media report, it was found that kids as young as five years old are already thinking about ideal body types.
So how can parents protect their children from developing unhealthy attitudes toward food and the way they look at their bodies? Here are 4 key areas of protection:
- Study up on this topic.
Educate yourself on common symptoms that develop when a child has an eating disorder. For example, if you notice that your child begins to casually comment on a fear of getting fat. Or he or she begins eating very small portions, or refuses to eat meals. These are signs that a disorder might be developing. Find out what happens to kids and teens when eating disorders are left unchecked. The more you educate yourself, the more you will be aware when something seems off about an attitude or an eating habit that your child is developing.
Talk with counselors and therapists, or call an anorexia treatment center to help you learn more about what kids face when they refuse to eat. Be aware of the other types of eating disorders there are. For example, bulimia and binge eating are also pervasive disorders that are often as common as anorexia.
- Be aware of media messages and find better models.
Make it a point to discuss with your child realistic body types and unrealistic body types. Particularly if you know he or she is aware of and interested in this topic. Watch age-appropriate documentaries about the beauty industry. And how advertising works to cause women to feel dissatisfied with themselves so they will spend more money.
Even when watching movies or TV that do not seem to be related to this topic, be aware of how your comments could be influencing your child. If you are always discussing who is thin or overweight, then these are the measurements of beauty your child will develop. Instead, compliment characters on the big screen when they act with kindness, grace, or show character. Be consistent in this, and your child’s view of the marks of a beautiful person will change, too.
- Watch your comments toward yourself.
Perhaps you pride yourself on being a parent who never demeans her child. But what about yourself? Your own values and beliefs about your body will spill over to your child through your comments, habits, and behaviors.
Do you ever say things like, “I look fat in this.” Or “I need to lose a few pounds.” Or “I wish I had so-and-so’s (insert body part).” These kinds of comments tell your child that it’s okay to view our bodies in a negative way. It is not too late for parents to develop a healthier body image of themselves. And what better reason to do it than so that they can be a good influence on their kids? Read books on healthy self-image, listen to audios, watch this inspiring TED talk, and research how to become a person with a healthy self-image. And relate the concepts you learn in an age-appropriate way to your children.
- Focus on health, fitness, and achievements in other areas.
If a child is happy with him or herself, there is no room for eating disorders to develop. How do you teach a child to be happy with him or herself? Or at least to minimize dissatisfaction with the bodies they inhabit? Focus on areas that you know your child is good in. Help them feel proud of themselves for their achievements. Enroll them in a club where they can explore or gain a new skill. Read and discuss the many marvelous things that a physical body is capable of beyond ornamental value and “looking good.”
When a child or a teen develops an eating disorder, this is one of the most challenging things that can happen to a family. And it will take everyone pulling together to help your little guy or girl come around. But preventing an eating disorder from developing is possible, too. Take steps now to foster healthy self-image in your kids that will protect them through adolescence and into their early adult years.
Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green
A graphic memoir of eating disorders, abuse and recovery.
Like most kids, Katie was a picky eater. She’d sit at the table in silent protest, hide uneaten toast in her bedroom, listen to parental threats that she’d have to eat it for breakfast.
But in any life a set of circumstance can collide, and normal behavior might soon shade into something sinister, something deadly. One day you can find yourself being told you have two weeks to live.
Lighter Than My Shadow is a hand-drawn story of struggle and recovery, a trip into the black heart of a taboo illness, an exposure of those who are so weak as to prey on the weak, and an inspiration to anybody who believes in the human power to endure towards happiness. [graphic novel, ages 14 and up]