Eating disorders and disordered eating are dangerous behaviors that hurt not only a person’s health, but their self-esteem and self-worth as well. No parent wants to see their child suffer, physically or mentally. Unfortunately, some children learn at a very young age that happiness and self-worth comes from attaining a certain body shape. Many teens, and even children as young as 12 years old and younger, turn to dieting, excessive exercise and other compulsive, dangerous behaviors to alter their bodies.
You can help your child accept his or her body and resist these unhealthy attitudes and behaviors before they take root. Here are five ways parents can prevent eating disorders in their children.
1. Be a role model. Children learn a lot from their parents, even when parents don’t realize they’re making a statement. Examine your thoughts, attitudes and behaviors toward your own body. If you’re constantly criticizing yourself or others, dieting or engaging in other similar behaviors, your child will learn to do the same. Set a good example for your child by practicing positive, healthy attitudes and behaviors such as sensible eating, exercise and self-acceptance.
2. Educate your child. Learn about the dangers of eating disorders and share this information with your child. Discuss with your son or daughter the dangers of trying to change your body shape through dieting, how moderate exercise is valuable for health, and the importance of eating well-balanced meals at least three times a day.
3. Mute out the media. Children (and adults) are constantly bombarded with images that portray certain body types as the key to power, popularity and perfection. Help your child understand that these are distorted images and that the human body should be celebrated in all shapes and sizes.
4. Promote healthy eating and proper exercise. Teach your child to eat well-balanced meals and avoid categorizing foods as ‘good/safe’ ‘bad/fattening,’ etc. Encourage your child to be active and enjoy activities regardless of their weight or body shape. Place emphasis on exercising for health rather than on exercising to change your body.
5. Build your child’s self-esteem. Encourage your child to participate in athletic, intellectual or social activities that build their self-esteem and self-respect. If your child has a well-rounded sense of self and solid self-esteem, they will be less likely to turn to dieting and disordered eating to make them feel better.
Finally, remember that eating disorders are complex illnesses that are caused by a variety of factors. Even the most caring parent cannot always prevent their child from developing an eating disorder.
If your child has an eating disorder, seek help right away. Eating disorders are dangerous mental illnesses that rarely get better on their own. Seek professional help at a treatment facility that specializes in treating your child’s specific eating disorder. With help, your child can learn to overcome his or her illness and address the root causes of the disorder.