How to Help Prevent Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that impact boys and girls equally.
We’ve all heard our friends make comments about what they “shouldn’t” have eaten that night out at the restaurant. Or perhaps you yourself have commented about needing to get to the gym to makeup for a meal or to achieve the goal you’ve set for yourself in response to a diet or exercise trend. Maybe you’re familiar with the self-talk you experience when looking in the mirror or comparing yourself to the person standing next to you. You may think these are simply inward thoughts that only impact your self-esteem, but that is not the case.
The reality is that our children, at younger and younger ages, now often have this same body awareness and have already started to buy into these societal messages of the “thin ideal.”
Eating disorders are mental illnesses that affect women AND men and girls and boys of all ages. They have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness and include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) and binge eating disorder. Our society’s cavalier attitude toward weight, size and shape, combined with a lack of understanding about mental illness, contribute to the widely-held misconception that eating disorders are a choice or rooted in vanity. While it can begin as an attempt to lose weight, for example, these disorders are truly about managing discomfort and emotional stressors.
The most common question that we get from parents is what caused their child’s eating disorder. While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact cause, we know that it is a culmination of several biological, psychological and sociocultural factors. It is estimated that more than 30 million men and women will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their life. The research is clear that the earlier these behaviors and symptoms are identified and effectively treated, the greater the chance for a full recovery. While there is a strong biological component, there are absolutely steps parents can take to create a healthy environment, promoting and maintaining for their children a normalized and balanced relationship with food, exercise, and their bodies.
Here are some ways that you can help your child develop a healthy relationship with food and their body to prevent against disordered eating:
- Set a good example of healthy eating. Teach your child to enjoy ALL foods. Stay away from labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” Don’t allow your child to diet, unless under the direction of a medical doctor. Ninety-eight percent of eating disorders develop after starting a diet.
- Be a good role model. Your child watches your relationship with food and your body. Be sure that you are sending them the messages that you want them to hear.
- Encourage your child to be active. Find a sport or activity that your child enjoys. Kids should focus on playing – not on spending time in the gym. Be active with them. Go outside and play with your child or go on a family walk.
- Value your entire child. Make sure you compliment your child on who they are — their gifts, their personality, their lovable traits. Help them to understand that who they are is more important than their appearance.
- Teach your child how to be media-literate. Help your child to understand the messages the media may send us about how we should look, and that images are often altered to fit a certain type.
- Be aware of warning signs. These can include changes in eating patterns, changes in mood, preoccupation with food or their bodies and withdrawal from normal activities.
If you believe that your child is struggling, contact a professional. While disordered eating is on the rise in children, effective treatment is available.
At Southeast Psych, Juliet Lam Kuehnle MS, NCC, LPC, specializes in treating boys and girls ages eight and up with eating issues, grief and loss and mood disorders. She is trained in EMDR therapy to use with trauma and other negative areas where clients are stuck.
Dr. Heidi Limbrunner is a board-certified clinical psychologist at Southeast Psych specializing in the treatment of disordered eating and body image. She has spoken nationally and internationally on the topic of eating disorders in adolescents.