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Anorexia and bulimia affect nearly 10 million women and 1 million men in the United States. Mary Kate Olsen is the most recent celebrity to admit an eating disorder — once again shining the spotlight on an illness that knows no boundaries. Dina Zeckhausen, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders and the founder of the nonprofit Eating Disorders Information Network, was invited on “Today” to give advice on what parents can do to help their child maintain a healthy weight.
It has become “normal” for us to dislike our bodies. Hollywood actresses are thinner than ever, plastic-surgery ads remind us of our imperfections, and an obesity epidemic places many of us into the unhealthy category.
We are a nation at war with our bodies. Teens and preteens, with their fragile self-esteem and raging hormones, are on the front lines. Negative body image can have devastating consequences.
Unfortunately, many parents and children turn to dieting as the answer. However, research shows that dieting in children and teens not only increases the risk of obesity but also sets the stage for potentially deadly eating disorders.
How can I help my child maintain a healthy weight?
Dieting parents are more likely to have children who develop an unhealthy relationship to food. Children who diet become disconnected from the wisdom of their own bodies.
An overly compliant child may take “food rules” to the extreme. These days children are avoiding carrots, sweet potatoes and orange juice because these foods have been labeled “bad” by dieting parents. Children of parents who are rigid about the evils of sugar or fat may sneak these forbidden foods at their friends’ houses. This behavior can trigger more serious problems involving secrecy and shame about eating.
The most popular concept among teens is “X-treme!” Anorexia is “X-treme Dieting.” Bulimia is “X-treme Dieting Gone Bad.” Counteract the “X-Treme” mind-set by demonstrating balance and moderation. Be healthy but flexible! Exercise to stay fit, not because you feel guilty about overindulging.
Even wonderful, involved, loving parents can have a child who develops an eating disorder. Family influence is one of a number of factors, including peer pressure, media influences, genes and personality variables.
How can I protect my child from peer pressure?
It is challenging for a child to eat lunch at school when her friends are dieting. Teach your child to resist peer pressure by emphasizing how good nutrition helps them feel good and function well. Appeal to their vanity. Teach them about the : damaged teeth; hair loss; brittle fingernails; stress fractures which can curtail sports; and months of time-consuming treatment which can seriously jeopardize the fun of being a teenager!
Resisting the emphasis on appearance, weight and dieting
Teach your child to critique the media’s messages by modeling a value system that emphasizes inner qualities. Hold family discussions about the following topics: “Why do depict bodies that are impossible to attain?” “Is how you look more important than how you feel?” “Should people get thin at any price?” Discuss the superficiality of celebrity worship and encourage your child to find role models who are making a difference in the world.
Keep your “fattitudes” in check. Be sure that your concerns about obesity do not morph into disdain toward overweight people. Do not make negative comments about your own body or anyone else’s! Your children are taking notes. I recently heard a 3-year-old child refuse to wear her winter coat because “it makes me look fat!”
What kinds of children develop eating disorders?
Children who develop eating disorders often . Children (and many adults) who overeat may use food to medicate uncomfortable feelings, mistaking sadness or anxiety for hunger. Help your child identify events and experiences that trigger uncomfortable feelings and develop healthier ways to find comfort.
Children who develop anorexia and bulimia are often people-pleasers who have difficulty expressing anger. Restricting food serves to numb both positive and negative feelings.
The simple advice “eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full” can help prevent most eating disorders. However, if your child is not good at “reading” their feelings, they may ignore or misinterpret hunger and fullness. Help your child make sense of their internal experiences and learn to express feelings appropriately.
How do I know if my child is at risk?
There is a strong for eating disorders. Anorexia and bulimia often occur in conjunction with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you, your spouse or other close relatives have suffered from any of these problems, your child is at greater risk. The best gift you can give your child is to address and resolve your own struggles so that you can be a positive role model for them.
Perfectionism is highly correlated with eating disorders. Beware of pressuring your child to perform at levels that are causing them stress. Help your child strive for excellence, not perfection.
What are some warning signs?
Dieting is not recommended for children, even those who are overweight. If your child is overweight, help them increase activity levels, make better food choices and curtail emotional eating.
If your healthy-weight child has poor body image, . Is your child losing weight, exercising excessively, isolating themselves, or disappearing quickly after meals to purge? Your child may seem excited about the sense of accomplishment (and even kudos!) that comes from weight loss, but over time they may appear subdued and increasingly obsessed with food and weight.
Dieting in vulnerable children can quickly spiral out of control. Since the mortality rate for anorexics is reported to be as high as 10 percent to 15 percent, have your child evaluated by a professional who specializes in eating disorders if you are the least bit concerned. The earlier you intervene, the higher the likelihood of a full recovery.
How do I find help?
You can find specialists through your state psychological association, a referral from your school counselor or physician, the or the .
How can I improve my child’s community in order to address these issues?
Schools should be involved in increasing awareness and shifting attitudes regarding health, weight, fat and beauty. EDINhas developed for counselors, teachers and students from first grade through college to raise awareness about disordered eating. Suggestions for include plays, campus-wide displays, discussion guides and activism to improve the culture in a diet-obsessed school. You and your child can make a difference!Dr. Dina Zeckhausen is a psychologist in Atlanta and founder of the Eating Disorders Information Network (EDIN). For more information about eating disorders and EDIN’s School and Community outreach programs, visit www.edin-ga.org. Her new children’s book, "Full Mouse, Empty Mouse," addressing eating concerns in grade-school children, is available at www.fmem.net.