Body image issues and eating disorders in children – can parents help?

Posted by iChild, May 16, 2018 2:26 PM

By Helena Grace Donald

The answer is very definitely, yes!

Parents need to be aware of the enormous pressure facing children in our appearance-obsessed society so that healthy prevention measures can be put in place in the home. They must also be alert to the red flags that signal that a child may be struggling with body image or eating issues; this would enable children to get the help they need before any unhealthy condition escalates.

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Young children today are being exposed to confusing and harmful messages about body image, obesity and dieting - from the media, advertising, TV, pop videos, peers and adult conversations.  Body shaming and bullying can start as early as nursery school, and many children feel under pressure to conform to the thin “ideal” that is so valued in our pop culture, regardless of their genetically determined body shape. The effect this pressure can have on children’s developing psyches should not be under-estimated. Health care professionals are reporting body dissatisfaction in children as young as three[1] and the number of pre-adolescent children suffering from eating disorders is soaring.[2]

The good news is that parents can counteract a lot of society’s negative programming by creating a safe and healthy environment in the home where everyone has a positive attitude towards their own body and treats food as a friend.

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Children learn by observation, so it is important that parents role-model a positive body image. Unfortunately, it has become “normal” in our society to criticise our own, and other people’s, bodies and to talk openly about the latest diet and detoxing regimes that we hope will get us the body we want. Overhearing conversations like this is damaging for children. It reinforces the harmful message they are getting from society that bodies need to conform to some “idealised” mould to be acceptable. Parents can help children to develop a healthy attitude towards their body by emphasising all the amazing things their body enables them to do, such as run; play; cuddle etc.  This will help children to love and appreciate the body they’ve got, so they are more likely to want to treat it with kindness and respect.

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Similarly, parents can foster a healthy attitude towards food by talking about it as a friend that nourishes them and gives them pleasure, rather than something that causes unhappiness and needs to be restricted. Shopping for food and cooking can be made into fun, educational activities. Linking the nutritional benefits of the food the family eats to what it enables their bodies to do, can encourage children to think of food as a helpful friend, rather than something to be feared, avoided, or gulped down without any thought. Another positive thing parents can do is to encourage children to think of their body as a friend that can communicate with them. Playful questions, such as: “what is your body feeling right now?” - and then getting the child to listen for the answer, can become a fun family game that will encourage children to listen when their body is signalling that it is hungry, full, tired, or in need of exercise, rest or sleep. This is a powerful antidote to body abuse of any kind and will stand children in good stead throughout their adult life.

As well as introducing prevention strategies, it is important that parents are aware of any warning signs that a child might have, or be at risk of developing, an eating disorder, so that early intervention measures can be taken. 

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Abnormal weight gain or loss: Any unexplained weight increase is a warning sign for vigilance, not panic. There is a wide range of “normal” when it comes to a child’s weight and children often gain a few pounds before a growth spurt. It is important that the child is not made to feel self-conscious about their weight. They should be encouraged to talk about how they are getting on at school and with friends to see if something might be upsetting them, which could be causing a change in their eating habits.  Unexplained weight loss, on the other hand, is a red flag that requires an urgent visit to the GP.    

Criticising their own body: This is a situation that needs to be handled delicately because the child’s feelings of self-worth are very fragile. The child is looking to the parent for reassurance that they are loved and accepted as they are.  If the child genuinely has a weight problem, then this is a time when parent and child could explore ways to deal with the issue in a healthy, non-shaming and supportive way. Encouraging the child to develop a friendship with their body will help. Any new eating habits should be embraced from a space of love and respect for their own body, rather than seen as restriction or punishment.

Avoidance of Family Meals: Reluctance to partake in family meals, or frequently saying they have already eaten at a friend’s house, could mean that they are not eating at all, or they are binge eating in private.

Going to the bathroom immediately after eating: If this happens regularly, it is a red flag. The child could be throwing up what they have eaten. Bulimics are very good at hiding this behaviour from their family. They often turn on the taps to drown out the sounds of the retching.

As someone who used to suffer from negative body image issues and bulimia, I can confidently say that the message that all children want and need to hear from their parents is that they are unconditionally loved and accepted, regardless of what they look like. Children should be encouraged to love and appreciate the body they’ve got for what it enables them to do, rather than what it looks like. Learning to treat their body as a cherished friend is the best antidote to unhealthy eating habits or abuse of any kind, and will set children up to develop into happy, healthy confident adults.

  ChildrenStrawberries

[1] https://pacey.org.uk>2016

2] https://manchestereveningnews.co.uk >September2017

By Helena Grace Donald
Empowerment coach, teen mentor and author of "Learning to Love the Girl in the Mirror: A Teenager Girl's Guide to Living a Happy and Healthy Life".

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