Eating disorders are completely devastating and often wildly misunderstood by the sufferer’s family and friends. Once an eating disorder takes hold, it can become a monstrous parasite that attempts to control every aspect of the person’s life. Those with less familiarity with disordered eating tend to question those suffering: Why don’t they just eat? Won’t they get to a certain point when they cave in and eat? Can’t someone just force them to eat? Don’t they know they’re already very skinny?
The simple response to all of these questions? Eating disorders are very complex mental disorders. They are often the most difficult to treat, and patients are never completely “cured.” Because of this, it is especially important for parents to not only know the initial signs of a disorder, but also be prepared to teach children and teens about creating healthy relationships with food. Below are strategies and suggestions for families on how to promote positive body images.
- Emphasize attributes and strengths aside from appearance. A preoccupation with body image and beauty standards can be a catalyst for young people’s insecurities. Even worse, the current level of celebrity obsession and the barrage of images promoting perceived perfection on social media creates a constant sense of self-doubt. Because of this, parents must focus on and celebrate other strengths. Praise children and teens for their artistic strengths, athleticism, kindness, curiosity, grit, etc. By highlighting these attributes, children will put less of a focus on image.
- Be sure to practice what you preach by avoiding negative self-talk in front of your kids. Sometimes we forget about the example that we might be setting around the house. If you make comments about another person’s appearance, or exhibit guilt or regret for eating that decadent chocolate dessert, your kids are picking up on that. As much as they would deny it, teens tend to follow their parents’ lead quite often. Therefore, if talks about dieting, fasting, weight gain/loss, and calories are common in the home, children may latch onto that preoccupation and develop their own issues with food and eating.
- Make mealtime a positive, encouraging part of the day. Families that eat meals together regularly are subtly promoting healthy eating habits, boosting self-esteem, and emphasizing the importance of reconnecting at the end of the day. With crazy schedules, appointments, homework, etc., it can be difficult to make family dinners a norm, but start small. Consider devoting one night per week to an uninterrupted family dinner. Remove distractions like electronics, television, and homework and truly just connect with one another.
- Prepare your child for body changes and development that accompany puberty. Creating an open dialogue around these changes will allow children to become comfortable with this inevitability. Let them know that, over time, everyone’s appearance and body is going to change—and that it is not a bad thing.
- Reconsider a scale in the bathroom. Often a staple or norm in the household, a scale might not seem like a dangerous thing. However, when children and teens begin to obsess over the numbers on the scale, it can become a serious problem. Since eating disorders rely on a sense of control, the number on the scale becomes sufferers’ means of proving how much control they have over their bodies. As their weight decreases and the numbers get lower and lower, teens engage in a dangerous battle against their own bodies. Removing the bathroom scale helps to remove this emphasis on weight gain or loss.