Research shows that children and adolescents are struggling with body image. Luckily, early intervention techniques can help you and your kids develop a healthy relationship with their bodies and with the food that nourishes them.
Here are five ways to help protect your kids:
1. Arm yourself with knowledge.
What might seem like normal behavior could actually be a warning sign of an eating disorder. Start by understanding the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder, then learn about the symptoms of the most common eating disorders, which may include:
Extremely limited eating
Intense fear of gaining weight
Weight and body shape fixation
Harsh self-judgment for imagined flaws
Fixation on “healthy” or “good” foods, especially at a young age, and becoming increasingly restrictive in their choices
Acid reflux and other gastrointestinal problems or saying their stomach hurts after eating certain foods
Intestinal irritation from misusing laxatives
Eating alone or in secret to avoid being embarrassed
Feeling distressed or guilty about eating
2. Communicate with your child—and start young.
Teens and young adults aren’t the only ones who suffer from eating disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 40-60% of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight.
Regardless of your child’s gender, building a strong foundation of self-confidence can help them throughout their lives. Encourage them to say positive comments about their bodies and teach them about intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, and why it’s important to fuel your body.
“Building a healthy relationship with food shouldn’t be confused with dieting,” says Kristin Francis, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “Be wary of introducing any type of food plan that moralizes food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that restricts certain groups. Instead, teach them that health is not synonymous with weight and is defined by more than how a body appears. Focus on providing a variety of foods and snacks at set times and helping your child learn to recognize how much food their specific body needs. Helping them to eat freely, without distractions of TV and books, will help them listen to their body’s cues and self-regulate.”
3. Set a good example.
Your child notices when you skip meals or make unkind comments about your body or someone else’s. Be aware of not only what you say but also what you do.
“Research shows that any body talk, period, is harmful for children,” Francis says. “It’s hard not to comment on physical appearance and takes a lot of practice given our own societal conditioning.”
Challenge yourself to improve your own self-confidence and relationship with food. Let your child hear you say things like, “I feel good today!” and “Wow, I feel really satisfied after that delicious meal—how do you feel?”
“Your littles absorb more than you think,” Francis says. “Setting a good example at home can help offset the unhealthy rhetoric and imagery they’ll see on television, social media, or out in the world.”
4. Know your family history.
The leading factor in eating disorders—50-80% of the time—is a person’s genetic makeup. But if eating disorders run in your family, that doesn’t mean your child is destined for the same outcome. It does mean that you should talk with your child about the risks and be extra vigilant for warning signs.
5. Be proactive.
If you think your child or teen has an eating disorder, enlist the help of a professional—today. When left untreated, eating disorders can lead to serious medical issues and death. Contact your pediatrician, who can assess your child’s condition and connect you with specialists to get your child back on a healthy track.
“There's absolutely no shame in reaching out for help,” Francis says. “There are many doctors and therapists who specialize in helping parents, teens, and children overcome eating disorders and disordered eating.”
If, at any point, your child starts talking about death and saying life is too hard, or if they think people would be better off without them, or they don’t want to live anymore, reach out for help immediately. You can contact a medical professional or therapist, call a crisis line like 988 or download a crisis intervention app like SafeUT.