Eating Disorders in Children
During a recent conversation with my 22-year-old daughter, she happened to mention that her friend Sandra suffered from bulimia. Frankly I was shocked! By all appearances Sandra seemed to have everything going for her. She was bright, extremely attractive and had just finished getting her university degree. After finishing up the phone call I started doing a bit more research on eating disorders in general and was horrified by what I found.
Recent studies have shown that that approximately 40% of 9 year olds in the US have already dieted and even more shocking, four and five year olds are feeling the need to diet. Whatever happened to kids just being kids? Why are young children feeling such pressure to be thin?
The family environment may be partially to blame. If one of the child’s parents are obsessed with their weight and appearance and constantly dieting and talking about how fat they are and how thin they would like to be, the child will receive the message that appearance is extremely important. Unfortunately there seems to be a bit of a double standard as boys are encouraged to clean their plate so they can grow up to be big and strong while girls are told to cut back on the sweets so you will have a nice figure when you grow up. There is a danger inherent in this approach, which could set up a child to develop an eating disorder. Children may also develop an eating disorder as a strategy to deal with the emotions that they are feeling, especially if they are raised in a home where showing emotion is frowned upon. Children who become compulsive eaters may be trying to use food as a panacea to help them deal with feelings of loneliness, anger, and sadness and abandonment. When a child is not able to express his or her emotions or if the parent is too involved to pay attention to their child, the child may turn to food to assuage their feelings of inadequacy.
Sadly the media and society in general also play a hand in this. Children are inundated on a daily basis with messages that being thin is necessary to be happy.
There are many things that you can do as a parent or caregiver if you are concerned that your child is using food for emotional reasons. It is important to find out how your child is feeling and what is making them turn to food for comfort. It is important never to criticize your child about their weight. Parents who put their children on a strict diet at a young age are setting them up to develop a serious eating disorder. This will not make your child lose weight, but will lead to feelings of self-loathing and cause the child to turn to food even more.
The most important thing that you can do as a parent is to set a good example. The following is a list will give you some simple but powerful ways to help your child so he or she does not develop an eating disorder.
- Set a good example- Try to make most meals nutritionally sound.
- Never force your child to clean his plate- Children naturally stop eating when full, by forcing your child to finish everything on his/her plate you are risking setting them up to have unsound feelings toward food.
- Make exercise a priority- Help your children to find healthy activities that they enjoy, by making it a family affair and making it fun your child will develop a love for physical activity. It is important to instill in your child that exercise is to help develop a strong healthy body not to make them thin.
- Teach your child its on the inside that counts the most- Show by example that people should be accepted for who they are, not what they look like on the outside.
- Praise your children for their accomplishments not on their appearance- Instead of telling your daughter how pretty she is tell her how bright she is or what a good sense of humour she has etc. These are the praises that really count.
- Show unconditional love-Show your child that no matter what they look like or what size they are that you love them. Give them your love and attention. Hug your children at every opportunity and tell them you love them. They can never hear it enough.
While the title of this article is Eating Disorders in Children, I chose not to go into detail about any specific disorder. If you are interested in more information about bulimia specifically, read a provocative interview that I had with Sandra, who is a recovering bulimic, at Child Eating Disorders – Bulimia Interview
By Monicka Gregory