Recently, another mom friend told me that her 7-year-old had mentioned that she “needed to get skinnier.” Another friend commiserated that she was concerned about her 12-year-old niece, who seemed to be more and more focused on her weight; A teacher friend talked about how frequently she had often overheard her third-grade students talking about calories and dieting.
According to NEDA, over 9% of girls and about 3% of boys experience an eating disorder, most commonly bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorders. They can be very serious and life-threatening, and often coincide with other mental health problems like anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
But, eating disorders are treatable, and there are things we can do as parents and caregivers to help prevent them. Below is a list of 10 things we can do to help prevent young people from developing eating disorders.
1.) Educate yourself about eating disorders.
There is more information than ever before about the nature of eating disorders, signs and symptoms, and how to help. Understanding the facts is the first step to prevention.
2.) Educate children about diversity and prejudice.
Examine your own thoughts about the variety of body shapes and sizes and how you respond to them. Make a conscious decision not to reinforce negative stereotypes about people who have heavier bodies, and not to comment on anyone’s body, period. Teach your children about different forms of prejudice, including weightism, and about how to stand up against prejudice when you notice it.
3.) Model respect that is not based on appearance.
Be intentional in showing respect and admiration for people’s accomplishments, character and kindness, rather than their looks. Treat all people respectfully, regardless of appearances. Avoid actions that suggest that being thin will lead to happiness. If you notice your child is gaining weight and you are concerned, rather than singling them out or commenting on their body, make sure the whole family is living a healthy lifestyle by doing physical activity and providing a variety of healthy foods.
4.) Model self acceptance.
Examine your attitude toward your own body, and work on loving yourself. Our bodies are amazing and can do so many things – make sure not to perpetuate messages of shame or self-judgement to the next generation.
5.) Let them know you love them exactly as they are.
Kids are constantly facing pressure from their peers, social media, and advertising about their appearance. This is why its especially important to communicate unconditional love. They need to be valued no matter what, and they should be applauded for academic and athletic accomplishments, but most importantly for showing good character and kindness, not for the way they look.
6.) Model healthy attitudes and practices for eating.
Learn about, discuss, and model healthy eating, not dieting which is shown to be ineffective and leads to feeling of deprivation. Emphasize eating a variety of healthy foods at least 3 times a day, and don’t categorize foods into “good” or “bad.” Allow children to eat when they’re hungry and stop eating when they feel full. Rather than just saying no to sweets and processed food which can lead to feelings of longing, limit how much and how often they are available. Teach your children that these foods are fine for special occasions, but don’t need to be consumed every day. Offer (don’t pressure) a variety of healthy whole foods at meal time and snack time as well.
7.) Model healthy attitudes and practices for exercise.
Learn about, discuss and model moderate exercise for enjoyment and health, not to change a number on a scale or to purge fat from your body. Find activities that you like and encourage children to do the same. Research shows that involvement in sports make it more likely that girls will have a healthier attitude towards their body for life.
8.) Educate them on the influence of tv and media.
Help children understand and challenge the ways in which the media distorts the real diversity of human bodies and implies that thinner bodies are preferable. You can do that by discussing what messages ads or shows are conveying and why (i.e. making us feel less-than in order to sell a product or service), and question whether they are hurtful or helpful messages. Point out that the way people look in magazines and music videos are air-brushed and unreal. Reduce the amount of screen time your family is exposed to.
9.) Address any mental health issues.
One in five Americans experience mental illness, and eating disorders are associated with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Many individuals go untreated due to stigma and a shortage of mental health providers. But research shows that treatment leads to a healthier life and helps young people to develop healthy skills for coping with stress, trauma and negative thoughts.
10.) Help them learn to cope with stress and conflict in healthy ways.
Stress is often a major factor in developing an eating disorder, so helping young people to deal with stress in healthy ways is key. Good sleep habits, exercise, breathing exercises, and meditation are just a few healthy stress management techniques that can be taught and encouraged. Helping build organization and communication skills also helps mitigate stress, as well as letting children know that it’s OK to ask for help.
In conclusion, even when we do our best to utilize all the latest research and strategies to protect children, sometimes problems can arise. Keep in mind that eating disorders are treatable, and help is available if you are concerned about someone.
Talk to them in a loving and non-confrontational way, and schedule an evaluation with a mental health practitioner. Eating disorder treatment typically involves family therapy that helps improve eating habits, reach a healthy weight, and manage other symptoms. Sometimes medication is prescribed to treat accompanying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. Occasionally hospitalization might be needed. It’s important to keep in mind that early intervention is the best option for recovery, and that treatment is effective.