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How to shield your kid from eating disorders

A balanced approach to body image and food is vital to avoiding issues such as bulimia and anorexia. Here are tips for parents.
/ Source: TODAY

Research shows that the age of onset of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia is getting younger and younger. To discuss this worrisome trend and offer advice to parents, “Today” invited eating-disorders expert Adrienne Ressler onto the show. Here is advice from Ressler, who is National Training Director of the Renfrew Center, a group of facilities that specialize in the treatment and prevention of such conditions.

Healthy messages start at birth...
It's never too early to start making sure your kids get healthy messages about food, diet, nutrition, and their bodies. This is something that should start at birth. Seriously.

When the concept of eating-disorders prevention first started about 15 years ago, we at the Renfrew Center targeted our efforts at college students — and we found that it was already too late. Then we shifted younger — toward high schoolers and then toward kids in junior high. And it's still not early enough.

This is NOT to blame parents, but there's a lot in our culture that leads to this. We are obsessed with fat and with body image. We hear lots of stories about parents and caregivers being too concerned with a baby's weight. At times it's just really inappropriate.

Finding the right balance…With all the messages in the media about overweight Americans and also all the talk about being careful to avoid eating disorders, it's important to find the right balance. It can all be a bit confusing — especially to a parent who's trying to figure out the best way to deal with kids.

There is constant talk about the epidemic of obesity, especially among the young, yet parents need to be careful not to spend too much time talking about fat and body issues with, or in front of, young kids.

We have to find a middle ground — finding the right balance is key. The so-called "war" on obesity is shaming to overweight people. For example, in Colorado, there's even a school district that sends a child's body fat percentage home on the student's report card!

Why some kids and not others…Kids are a fertile training ground for eating disorders. Girls more than boys, but the number of boys is getting higher. Years ago, boys were 1 percent or 2 percent of the total. Now they they're 5 percent to 10 percent of the total.

We see that kids who have issues with safety, control and anxiety are more likely to develop eating disorders. We know that certain types of kids are in fact more predisposed to developing eating disorders. To some extent, it has to do with genetics. But other key factors are the presence of anxiety and/or depression — and these can frequently be triggered by the environment, such as family problems or a sense of not being able to keep things under control.

Teasing makes things worse…It's very hard for kids who truly are overweight — they tend to be teased or ostracized by their peers and made to feel ashamed of their bodies.

So what then ends up happening is that kids focus on their weight and size because that's the only way they know to try to control their lives.

What parents can do…Kids need to understand that their self-worth is not dependent on their weight or body shape. If your child complains that she or he feels too fat, you shouldn't dismiss it, and you should ask your child more about it.

Parents need to stop making their own weight and size an issue. And they need to be careful about making kids fearful of food. Parents need to be responsible for creating a healthy environment at home.

If a parent is someone who's on a diet, or someone who struggles with weight, you need to think about what impact this might be having on your kids. For example, if the parent constantly talks about his/her own unhappiness with his/her body, the child will hear this and could end up getting negative messages about food and body image.

A much better way is for the entire family to eat healthy meals. Everyone should eat the same thing. The meals should be balanced — and should not be like being on a diet. It's not a good idea to rule out or eliminate certain types of food (no pasta, no sugar, etc.).

Five tips for parents

  • Avoid negative statements about your own body and your own eating.
  • Do not pressure your child to be a superstar, super achiever, or perfect.
  • Help your child develop interests and skills which will lead to personal expression and fulfillment without undue emphasis on appearance.
  • Make family meals relaxed and friendly. Refrain from commenting on children's eating, resolving family conflicts at the table and using food as a punishment or reward.
  • Know your child. If you notice a pattern of anxiety or depression, get help immediately.