Eating Disorders on the Rise in Our Kids: How to Help Them Cultivate A Positive Body Image

People of all ages can be affected by eating disorders, body image issues, and weight insecurity. A new study suggests that as many as 5% of children as young as 9 and 10 show disordered eating behaviors. There’s no clear-cut reason why these disorders develop – these disorders can be rooted in trauma, while for others, it can come from peer pressure and societal norms (standards of beauty), and in some cases, the cause can be genetic.

Another influential contributor is how adults refer to or draw attention to children’s weight. For example, one study examined how children reacted when they were weighed at school, followed by their reaction after the school told their parents about their weight (regardless of whether the child fell into a normal weight range). The study revealed that once their families received letters from the school about their weight, even students identified as being in a healthy weight range were still more prone to try to lose weight. In other words, they were now more aware of and self-conscious of their weight.

It’s a slippery slope. Although some foods are healthier than others (broccoli is better for you than ice cream), the study suggests that labeling foods as “good” or “bad” can also inadvertently give a child a poor relationship with their body and with food. It can be challenging to compliment a child on their appearance without making them feel self-conscious or teach them about healthy eating without demonizing specific foods.

One tip researchers suggest is to focus on balance, rather than “good” and “bad” or “healthy vs. “unhealthy.” Balance can be created by establishing holistic ways to care for oneself – the focus should not solely be on food, but rest, play, mental health, self-care, hobbies, and creativity.

Children can be taught to pay attention to their body’s cues around food (what makes them feel good vs. not so good, or when they are hungry vs. full). It’s also helpful to consider language around food, emphasizing health rather than weight, shape, or size.

Another tip is paying attention to your behavior and attitude toward food and body image. The words parents use can be very powerful, even if not directed at children. This includes how parents refer to themselves or other people. Do you compliment people when they lose weight? Do you make comments about other people’s bodies you see on T.V.? Do you put down your own appearance?

A child’s view of their bodies is heavily influenced by what their parents say. It can be tricky when even positive comments can backfire. Children can become fixated on looking a certain way to feel loved, accepted, or better about themselves. Rather than focusing on appearance, experts suggest focusing on a child’s content, meaning, skills, personality, and unique gifts.

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