Eating Disorders

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Childwise: A Column for Parents of Children from Birth to 21

By Kathleen Ganster

It isn’t uncommon for children as young as first grade to start worrying about their weight in this day and age. More young people than ever before, especially young women are fighting eating disorders.

What do you, as a parent, look for in your daughter (please note, young men can suffer from an eating disorder, but far more young women are affected with this condition) that may be a sign that she has an eating disorder?

And what do you do if she does have one?

Childwise asked Joan Schenker, parent education coordinator at Anchorpoint Counseling Ministry, former elementary and middle school counselor, and creator of the workshop,  “Selling Kids Out: Body Image & the Media,” for tips and advice.

Joan Schenker

According to Schenker signs of an eating disorder may include: playing with food and eating very little at meals; making excuses not to eat; a preoccupation with food and exercise; leaving right after a meal and going to the restroom; and a large weight loss in a short period of time are common, but like many conditions, the signs may be numerous and of course, vary from each person.

“There aren’t ‘sure signs’ but there are common ones,” she said.

To assist parents with information and knowledge, Schenker recommended the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

From NEDA’s website:  Eating disorders — such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder – include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males.” 

Clearly, eating disorders aren’t something a parent should overlook or think aren’t important. But like most conditions, it is better to prevent than cure.

“I tell parents that modeling is always the best method. If you are preoccupied with your own body image and weight, your children will pick that up,” said Schenker.

She recommends parents stress good health and avoid negative statements about weight.

“At puberty, girls do tend to gain weight. You have to watch your own comments because they could really have a negative impact on your daughter,” she said.

Schenker said parents may say something that may seem harmless such as, “I see you are putting on some weight,” or “If you lost a few pounds, maybe you would have a boyfriend,” but are actually harmful comments.

“Parents may not mean to be unloving and aren’t unloving parents, but these are unloving comments,” said Schenker.

Helping your daughter have positive lifestyle habits and skills helps prevent eating disorders. Make sure they get plenty of sleep, plenty of exercise and healthy meals is good practice for good health in any case, but can be particularly helpful with a healthy body image.

“Talk to your kids about what body love is. Help them develop a healthy body image,” Schenker said, “Let them know that beautiful, healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.”

Schenker also suggested putting your family on a “media diet” and limit the time spent consuming TV and other forms of media that may project unhealthy body image, risky sexual behavior and other unhealthy messages.

“Put yourself on a media diet as well. You want to prevent these unhealthy messages reaching your children,” she said.

If you do suspect an eating disorder, consult your pediatrician or a school counselor for more advice and assistance. There are numerous programs, support groups and counseling available for the treatment of eating disorders. Left untreated, an eating disorder can cause serious health consequences and even death.

For more information, visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) website at www.nationaleatingdisorder.org.

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