web directory link about Family TLC link contact us link

Mirror, Mirror: Preteen Body Image

The Adonis Complex: Is Your Son at Risk?

Children and Teens Afraid to Eat: Helping Youth in Today’s Weight-Obsessed World by Frances M. Berg (Healthy Weight Network, 2001)

When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Caretakers by Abigail H. Natenshon (Jossey Bass, 1999) 


Could Your Child Have an Eating Disorder?
by Louise Hajjar Diamond

In today’s society, the media bombards us with mixed messages about food and fitness. As we watch television, we see commercials for “super sizing” fast food and weight loss centers all in the same commercial break. It seems that many Americans are obsessed with food yet constantly struggling with their weight. While meal portions are getting larger, waistlines are expected to be trim. These conflicting messages are difficult for sophisticated adults to reconcile and they may even be harmful to our impressionable children.

Although it is important for all of us to strive to eat well, exercise regularly, and to maintain a healthy body weight, many of our children have unrealistic expectations about how they should look. When faced with conflicting societal pressures, many children come to believe that they are overweight and unattractive, regardless of their body size. Unfortunately, the shame these children feel is often reinforced not only by our culture as a whole, but by parents, family members, and educators as well.

The self-esteem and image problem can lead to serious health problems and potentially fatal consequences. One twelve-year-old middle school student killed himself because he was in so much pain after experiencing years of harassment for being overweight. He decided to take his own life rather than return to school after summer break.
While this child’s reaction to his situation is at the far end of the spectrum, it is not unique in terms of the potential dangers of image and eating problems. Eating disorders have a relatively high death rate. Many of these deaths are caused by complications caused by extreme starvation as well as suicide.

Author and licensed nutritionist, Frances M. Berg, outlines in her book, Children and Teens Afraid to Eat: Helping Youth in Today’s Weight-Obsessed World, the dangerous misconceptions many American children hold about body image. Ms. Berg states, “teenage girls have the poorest nutrition of any group in America.” More than half of teenage girls don’t eat enough for health, energy, or strength, Berg continues. Regardless of their weight, approximately two-thirds of teenage girls and one-forth of teenage boys are trying to lose weight. By fifth grade, half of all girls report feeling “too fat” and twenty to forty percent of these girls are actively dieting.

How can parents determine if their child is suffering from an eating disorder? What can parents do to prime their children into being healthy eaters and maintaining a positive body image?

Approximately ten million Americans suffer from eating disorders and ninety percent of those afflicted are age twenty or under. One percent of teenage girls has anorexia and three percent suffer from bulimia. According to Abigail H. Natenshon, “kids are developing eating dysfunction problems at ever-younger ages. The average eating disorder onset has recently slipped from thirteen to seventeen to nine to twelve.” Ms. Natenshon’s book, When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Caretakers, is a sensitive and insightful look at the complex topic of eating disorders. The author has thirty years experience as a psychotherapist who specializing in treating patients suffering from eating disorders.

It is normal for adolescents to be aware of their appearance and body image. It is important to remember that most children who have concerns and want to loose weight aren’t necessarily eating disordered. Eating disorders are extremely intricate in nature.

Clinical eating disorders take on several forms.

  • Anorexia is characterized by an individual's refusal to maintain body weight at or above the minimally normal weight for her height. Persons suffering from anorexia have an abnormal fear of becoming fat, distorted body image, and absence of menses. They may deny their own hunger and develop a fear of food itself.
  • Bulimia is the repeated cycle of out of control bingeing followed by purging (self-induced vomiting) or by fasting to compensate for the intake of calories.
  • Binge-Eating Disorder or Compulsive Overeating is defined when a person eats without being hungry or continual eating without regard for physiological cues not to do so.
Even though the obsession about being thin and concern of being overweight is pervasive in our society, only a minority of the general population actually has eating disorders. Ms. Natenshon explains that genetic vulnerability may be a major factor defining why only certain individuals develop eating disorders despite the universal pressures of societal values to be thin.

Ms. Berg’s points out, “factors that increase a dieter’s vulnerability to eating disorders are believed to be genetic, biological, psychological, sociocultural and familial.” Children who are sexually or physically abused may be more prone to developing an eating disordered than children who are not abused.

The distinguishing factor between quirky or strange dieting or eating habits and eating disorders is the child’s motivation for loosing weight and the manner and rate of the weight loss. “When dysfunctional eating becomes a means to solve emotional problems, there is cause for concern,” Ms. Natenshon explains.

Eating disordered individuals may use their eating habits to “control” inoffensively instead of having disruptive “acting out” behaviors. Food is something kids can control in their lives without interference. Children with eating disorders may seem to be “good kids” who want to do everything right.

Eating disorders are diseases and they require and can respond to appropriate treatment. Many people who suffer from these conditions go on to live productive and happy lives after successful intervention.

Some behavioral red flags parents can look for include:
  • when a child brings her own food to an event,
  • when a child stops eating in front of others,
  • when a child eats rapidly or alone,
  • when a child makes excuses for having to use the restroom after eating,
  • moodiness, depression,
  • extreme self-criticism,
  • preoccupation with weight issues,
  • rapid weight loss,
  • issues with self-control and self-regulation,
  • loss of menstrual period.
A child might only have a few of these warning signs and may still be in need of help.

Ms. Natenshon wants parents to know that; “ages nine to twelve are particularly pivotal in preventing eating dysfunction and in promoting the child’s positive sense of body and self.” Parents need to look beyond the issue of food and explore emotional factors.

Ms. Natenshon warns, “parents’ well-intended efforts to teach their child healthy eating habits typically backfire, leading to misconceptions and food phobias.” Although parents are not to blame for their child’s eating disorder, they may play a part in the onset and the recovery of the disease.

Parents should be aware of their comments about their own body image and avoid making critical statements about themselves in front of their kids. Avoid conveying attitudes of disappointment or conditional love to your child. Promote positive self esteem by listening and respecting your daughters and sons alike.

Spending quality time with your child teaches her or him that they are worthy of love and acceptance just for being themselves. As often as possible, share meals and conversation with your child. Promote a home environment where it is safe to express feelings. Encourage your kids to come to you with their problems and really listen when they do. Assist your child in developing skills that lead to success and personal expression. Give your children praise for their inner beauty and de-emphasize the importance of outer appearance.

It may be difficult to tell whether a child is suffering from an eating disorder. Maintaining a positive connection, open communication, and being a healthy role model may help to prevent the onset of many adolescent problems including eating disorders. Attending to early warning signs that are behavioral, emotional, and physical will assist a parent in deciding when to seek professional help.

Louise Hajjar Diamond is a guidance counselor, freelance writer and mother of two. To reprint this article, e-mail her at weazer@sprynet.com.

web directory link about Family TLC link contact us link

all about kids articles - l babies l toddlers l preschoolers l 5 - 9 year olds l preteens l teens l parent/child dialogue l
l sitemap l web directory l about us l contact us l conditions of use l privacy notice l

© 2002, 2003 FirstTeacherTLC.com All rights Reserved.