Not too long ago, most clinicians considered eating disorders to be a problem that primarily affected young women in their teens and twenties. Recently, the age of onset has drastically decreased to include children (and it is not uncommon for even kindergarten children to talk about being too fat or to be teased about being fat — even when they're not). This article addresses factors affecting the development of eating disorders in children and what parents can do to raise resilient children in an eating disordered culture.
Here are some facts and figures about eating disorders:
1. The incidence of eating disorders has increased by 500% in the last two decades.
2. These have the highest mortality rate of all emotional/mental disorders.
3. 20% of people with eating disorders do not fully recover, and 5–10% die.
4. This problem is second only to schizophrenia in the number of hospital beds used in psychiatric hospitals.
5. The expected weight for models and TV stars meets the criteria for anorexia nervosa.
6. Various studies have found that:
7. Most prevention studies have disappointing results, which have added to the impression that unhealthy ideals of beauty and eating behaviors are fairly intractable by the middle school years (ages 11–14).
8. In contrast, some prevention programs with younger children seem to have had negative results (i.e., increased awareness may have brought on the problem earlier).
9. Eating disorders run in families. Minnesota twin studies suggest that eating disorders are hereditary, though primarily when the onset is at or after puberty. Before puberty, parents were found to be the most significant factor affecting children’s attitudes.
The Eating Disordered Culture
About three generations ago, the round and “filled out” figure was considered ideal. Two generations ago (that of most mothers today), the very thin and straight figure was ideal. This current generation suggests that beauty consists of extreme thinness with cosmetic surgery (primarily breast implants). At least in previous generations a percentage of women did naturally have curvy or straight figures. Recently, the ideal is not even found as a naturally occurring phenomenon. The pressure that this puts on children is unfathomable. I remember when, as a little girl, I heard of the Chinese tradition of binding the feet of little girls. My reaction was one of horror. Now our culture’s emphasis on thinness results in a sort of binding of the entire girl, both inside and out. Most women in entertainment and modeling have body weights that meet criteria for anorexia nervosa, indicating that internal damage is slowly occurring. This is even worse than the external damage of binding feet. But what can be done? We may feel helpless as parents to fight the cultural ideal, yet we may have more power than we realize. The first step is realizing how this culture has affected your attitudes about your and others’ bodies. Men and women alike have been affected by these attitudes and preoccupations with weight, and we all need to become more aware of this as we raise the next generation of children.
A combination of the following factors is usually present:
Summary: The Skin Cancer Analogy
As indicated above there are many factors which combine to “cause” a person to develop an eating disorder. Therefore, blame cannot be placed on any particular person or factor. Twin studies have been used to determine how much of the development of the problem is due to genes versus environment. These studies suggest that although some people seem to be born with a predisposition to develop an eating disorder, this does not show up until adolescence. Prior to adolescence the development may be more related to family factors. Children are most motivated by their parents’ attitudes prior to turning to their peer group, and children who are more “anxiety-prone” may be more susceptible to negative attitudes toward weight and food expressed by their parents.
Consider that the cultural emphasis on thinness is analogous to the sun in that its damaging effect shines on all children. You also may have been affected by this exposure and need to examine ways that you may unknowingly affect your children by your own attitudes. Women have been taught that their bodies are unacceptable in their natural state. But males have not been spared entirely. Male action figures over the past 20 years have changed from normal-sized men (such as GI Joe and the early forms of Luke Skywalker) to figures resembling a beefed up version of the incredible hulk. Men also have bought the belief about women that thinner is better (even to the point of risking health). Boys have reported that they feel like something is wrong with them if they cannot attract an extremely skinny girlfriend. By examining your own attitudes and habits around eating and weight, you as a parent can increase your child's resiliency to the danger (like putting sunscreen on their skin).
All of our children are under incredible pressure about appearance due to the culture in which we live. What may have seemed like innocent beliefs and comments in another time (she shouldn’t be eating that) now may be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. To protect your child from the harmful rays of our society, consider your own attitudes and beliefs.
1. Stop dieting and develop healthy eating habits that you can maintain for the long run:
2. Consider the way that you refer to your own body and others’ bodies in front of your children:
3. Educate your children about the genetic basis for natural diversity of human body shapes and sizes (we all have different sized noses, for example).
4. Do things you enjoy, regardless of your size:
6. Develop a relaxed manner about food:
Examine Your Own Attitudes by Honestly Considering the Following.
How often do you:
Do you believe: