Preventing Eating Disorders in Our Children

Remuda Ranch, a residential treatment program for eating disorders, opened a facility for children ages eight to thirteen in 2003. When I spoke with one of the coordinators in 2006, I asked if they were receiving patients. I was told that the facility had been at full bed capacity since it opened, with the average patient age being 12 1/2 years old and the youngest being 8.

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I was deeply saddened by this report. A short time later, a local MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group asked me to come speak to them about preventing eating disorders in their children. Because of my recent conversation with Remuda, I found this to be a relevant and timely request.

As a woman in recovery from anorexia, and as a professional who works with those with eating disorders, my passion has grown to include eating disorder prevention in young children. What a gift to be able to stop the horror before it starts. Type in “eating disorder statistics, children” into the popular search engine Google, and the results that come up will astound and dismay.

Some articles report that up to 81% of ten year olds are afraid of being fat, and some young girls state they would rather die than be fat. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the facts on eating disorders and children.

Eating Disorders are multifaceted issues; there is no one cause for them. However, there are some typical trends that professionals see when treating them. Knowing these trends, in itself, can lend to the prevention of this plague among our kids.

In 40-60% of the cases of eating disorders, there is a history of some sort of abuse. There is also a history of being picked on, bullied, and teased by peers. Because of a lack of control in these areas of life, a girl (though this does affect boys as well) will often turn to food and/or getting rid of food as an attempt to control something in her life. What she does not realize is that she is just causing herself more pain.

Certain personalities are more prone to eating disorder issues. Children who, as a natural tendency, struggle with perfectionism, low self-esteem, and difficulty in expressing emotions are more apt to fall into patterned eating disorder behavior.

Controlling one’s weight attempts to meet the standard of being “perfect,” getting complimented for how thin she is helps with self-esteem issues, and the emotional high that comes from weight loss and/or binges and purges is an emotional release.

Family issues are also contributing factors to the onset of eating disorders. These issues may be a lack of bonding between child and parents, a lack of a proper dealing of emotions in the family as a whole, an image-based family, and marital issues.

Again, what a child feels is out of control in their family of origin, they attempt to control with their lack of eating or the purging of food once they do eat. We also cannot down play the role the media has in this epidemic of eating disorders.

Although recent strides have been made in monitoring the size of our runway models,after the deaths of three of them in 2006 and 2007 (two were sisters in fact), society as a whole has a long way to go in it’s portrayal of a healthy body.

Just pick up any magazine on the news stand that is geared towards women and/or teen girls, and the models are still thinner than the rest of the general population. The same goes for most popular TV shows.

read : TV and Your Child – Does it Aid or Hinder?

Our kids are confronted every day with what the world defines as pretty. In this definition, “pretty” is the same thing as “thin.” Not only “thin,” but waif-like thin. Even the clothing that is available in stores for young girls is geared for slim body types and does not flatter our young people who are of a healthy weight.

Given the abuse that is rampant, the media that is relentless, and that state of many of our families, what can be done? What can we as adults do to help prevent our children from buying into the lie that they have worth and value only if they are thin? Even closer to home, what can we do as parents?

As parents we can model healthy eating habits to our children. I just read again this morning that our children will eat how they see us eating. Eat junk food all day long, and it will inevitably follow that your child will too. Have a fear of eating anything that has a fat gram in it, and your child will more than likely pick up on this same behavior. There are disagreements out there as to what healthy eating truly is. Some say that all protein and no carbs is the way to go.

Others say anything not made by man is the proper way to eat. Instead of offering one particular way of eating, I offer this suggestion: model the healthy habit of eating when you are hungry and stopping as soon as you are full.

Eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full models to your children an awareness of responding to your body’s signals, which we are all created to have. It avoids the trap of “safe versus unsafe” foods, or “bad food versus good foods.”

Instead, it teaches a healthy fueling of our bodies in a self-controlled manner. In addition to modeling healthy eating, model a healthy attitude about your own body image. If your daughter especially observes you constantly talking about how much you hate your body, how you wish you could do something about this area, how you need to work out more, etc., it is only a matter of time before she picks up on this.

I struggle with this as a mom already. My daughter is 9 months old and I’m already trying to find a healthy approach to take when it comes to my workouts. I enjoy my daily workouts and experience a rise in emotional tension when I don’t get them in.

I want to portray exercising as a time that helps me feel better because it’s a healthy activity. On the flip side, I don’t want to portray a panic that I didn’t work out that day and I’m afraid of what will happen as a result.

I hope that, as my daughter grows older, I portray a realistic sense of what it means to live in a healthy way. Not a way that is obsessive and controlled, but a way that is disciplined for the sake of being healthy. I hope to showcase to my daughter the confidence in who I am as a woman, not a self-esteem that comes from how I look.

After years of focusing more on my looks, specifically my weight, this will be difficult to accomplish on a daily basis. And yet, I realize how crucial it is that I model and teach my girl the truth that who she is, is much more important than how she looks.

Teaching proper self esteem to our children is a part of this battle against eating disorders. We need to seek to encourage and praise them for who they are as individuals, not for how they look.

This is not to say we can’t compliment them when they look particularly nice one day, but it is to say that we shouldn’t make their appearance the main object of our focus and attention.

We should regularly point out what we appreciate about our child and emphasize their strengths. We can point out the potential we see in them and brag on them to other adults — in their hearing. A child who feels validated and worth something will not be as tempted to find fulfillment in what the scales indicate.

There are more books and programs being offered recently that focus on teaching healthy self-esteem to young girls. One of my favorites is from the Girl Scouts of America’s “Uniquely Me” program, which even includes a book for girls ages 14 – 17 years old. This book provides mothers with a beautiful opportunity to sit down with their daughters and discuss important issues related to beauty, weight, and self-esteem.

Whether you find a book or just talk to your daughter, communication is vital, starting at even a young age. Watch shows like “Hannah Montana” with her and talk about everything from what was on the show to how Hannah is dressed and what your daughter thinks about her appearance.

Look for teachable moments and snatch them up. Dove has put together some videos for their Campaign for Real Beauty program that speak volumes. Again, take the tools that they offer and use them as teachable moments with your daughter.

What we do have going for us is that more companies and organizations are recognizing the risk and reality of eating disorders in our children and teens, and they are becoming pro-active. Support these organizations by buying their products and using word of mouth to tell others what they are doing.

Thank them for the stand they are taking in the prevention of eating disorders. Eating disorders have reached epidemic proportions, but that doesn’t mean our children need to be one of the statistics. We don’t need to fear eating disorders in our children, but we do need to be aware of the potential risk.

Having an awareness is what goads us into taking active steps in preventing eating disorders in our children. Having an awareness helps us know how to help them achieve a balanced and healthy life. Living this type of life goes beyond weight; it transcends into the heart and soul of a child. And that is something no scale can ever measure.

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