How to…. prevent you child from getting an eating disorder
By Kate Hilpern
Once youngsters hit adolescence, they become particularly susceptible to eating disorders, although children as young as six are reported to have battled with the likes of bulimia, anorexia and binge eating. So what can parents do to help stop it from happening to their kids? And are there danger signs to be mindful of?
‘It’s important for families to be aware that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, for which there isn’t one sole cause,’ says Rebecca Field, spokesperson for the eating disorder charity, Beat. ‘In fact, we know that there are more biological and genetically based reasons than we ever thought there were, so if it does happen it doesn’t mean it’s your fault.’
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things parents can do to help prevent disordered eating behaviours from happening and to nip it in the bud if it’s already started happening, she adds. ‘Research shows that the sooner someone gets treatment, the more likely they are to make a full recovery.’
Stop conversations about weight and dieting
‘Eating disorders aren’t things you can catch or that come about as a result of copying others but it is helpful to talk about dieting and weight as little as possible with or around your child if you want them to have a healthy attitude towards eating,’ says Field. ‘We advocate celebrating people not for their weight, shape or what their physicality is like – but by things like how kind or funny they are and how they treat their friends.’
Consider your attitude towards your own body
If you constantly self-judge your own body – criticising it at every turn – then is it any wonder if your children start doing the same about themselves? Try to develop a healthier relationship with your own body, so you don’t perpetuate feelings of bodies not being good enough onto them.
Eat together as a family
A study of over 13,000 pre-adolescents and adolescents found that having family dinners most days decreased the risk of eating disorders. Shared family mealtimes give parents a chance to be role models for healthy eating, to monitor their child’s food intake and to talk about food in a healthy context.
Ensure you have good eating habits
It’s not just at mealtimes when you can be a good role model around eating. If you snack on fruit and carrots, they will be more likely to as well. If you constantly go for chocolate and then talk about feeling guilty, there’s a chance that they will also mirror that. Try to change to protect your child – and you will benefit from your increased health too.
Decrease the pressure around exam time
‘We know that exams can be a huge trigger point for eating disorders among young people,’ says Field. ‘They tell us they felt huge stress and pressure and completely out of control. It’s so important for parents not to put unnecessary pressure on a child, especially around exams – and to reiterate that they’re not the be-all-and-end-all and that they can only do the best they can.’
Encourage healthy exercise
Adolescents who are encouraged by parents to exercise have been shown to be happier with their bodies. ‘Given that exercise is one of the best ways to cope with mental health difficulties, it makes sense for parents to get children outside and playing in the garden or nearby parks in a healthy, non-obsessive way to grow up as healthy young people,’ says Field. But be aware that excessive or compulsive exercise can be a sign of an eating disorder.
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