Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are serious psychiatric illness, not unlike anxiety and depression. Individuals who suffer from one of these disorders use food in unhealthy ways to cope with difficult emotions and life situations.
Sadly, eating disorders have now become an epidemic in this country. It is estimated that roughly 11 million women and girls struggle with anorexia and bulimia. Though the average age of onset is 14, girls as young as 8 suffer from eating disorders. It is important to mention that young men and boys also suffer from eating disorders. It is a common misconception that these issues only affect girls, and that tends to inhibit boys from seeking treatment.
How Can Parents Help Prevent Eating Disorders?
It’s hard to pinpoint one single event that triggers an eating disorder. Usually it is a combination of factors that can include genetics, peer pressure, trauma, media influence and life transitions. Young people may display a variety of warning signs but the most common are developing an obsession with how they look. Boys and girls may suddenly display an extreme preoccupation with food, carefully counting calories, carbohydrates and fat grams.
While your child will be heavily influenced by numerous outside factors, you can play an important role in preventing the development of an eating disorder. To start, throughout their life, food should never be used as a reward or punishment. It’s common in our culture to reward our kids with ice cream or punish them by sending them to their room before they’ve finished dinner. This must stop because it instills in them the very idea that food is something other than nourishment.
It’s also important to walk the walk. This means preparing healthy and balanced meals in the home. Exercise should be done to stay healthy and to have fun (biking, kayaking) not because you are trying to lose weight.
Even if your doctor has told you you must lose weight for your health, choose your words carefully. “I am getting up early and walking before work to be healthier.” Mothers in particular must recognize how their behavior and actions with food and body image impact their daughters. A mother who herself is obsessed with being “skinny” and counting calories will encourage these behaviors in her own daughter.
With both young girls and boys, parental focus should be put on the child’s efforts and achievements, not on their looks, beauty, muscles etc. And, most importantly, all children must be encouraged to focus their attention on specific qualities such as kindness, compassion or generosity.