Eating Disorders in the Playground

From an early age children are susceptible to the messages they receive and negative messages are in danger of being absorbed into their belief system.
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In America, 42 percent of first, second and third grade girls want to lost weight and 45 percent of boys and girls in grades three through six want to be thinner.

These shocking statistics are revealed in Lauren Stern's new book "The Slender Trap: A Food and Body Workbook". Stern's book aims to help women and girls work through their issues with food and body image and lead them on the path to emotional wellbeing and features a series of writing and drawing exercises that guide readers through the therapeutic experience to help them assess how they feel about themselves and their bodies. The book also reveals that 9 percent of nine year olds have vomited to lose weight and 81 percent of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat.

These statistics underline recent reports that the incidence of eating disorders amongst the primary school age group is increasing.

A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2009 found that between July 2002 and June 2005, 101 five to 13-year-old children were newly diagnosed with an eating disorder. About two-thirds were affected by anorexia nervosa. The rest were experiencing "food avoidant emotional disorder" -- a condition unique to children which involves extreme weight loss driven by high anxiety levels, rather than wanting to be thin.

Two-thirds of girls in year 1 believed that being thin would make them more popular. Even more believed weight gain would attract teasing.(i)

According to Dr. Murray Drummond of Flinders University in Australia, for boys these negative impressions are "associated with the drive for muscularity. Guys on the cover of male targeted health magazines are athletic and muscular, but devoid of hair -- almost prepubescent, which has caused a problem in our changing cultural expectations."

Material published on a psychology website confirms that by school-age, children often face prejudices based on their appearances. Children spend much of their early lives in schools, an environment that is highly social and competitive with notoriously rigid hierarchies often based on physical appearances. Studies have found that teachers are also drawn to the most attractive children, which can further compound a child's poor body image. In a school-age child, a poor body image may result in social withdrawal and poor self-esteem.

And if primary school aged children develop a fixation on the way they look and a negative awareness about weight and size, these feelings can trigger self destructive thoughts and behaviours which can spiral into an eating disorder.

In my book Why Can't I Look the Way I Want; Overcoming Eating Issues there is a chapter dedicated to triggers. For me personally, peer pressure and puberty led to feelings of inadequacy, and played a leading role in the onset of anorexia. Triggers can be situations, comments or events that bring up feelings of anxiety and worthlessness including family arguments related to eating (e.g. "you're not leaving the table until you've eaten everything on your plate"), feelings of being misunderstood, rejection by peers (e.g. "go away we don't want to play with you"), or feeling like a misfit. Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy thought processes and feelings of insecurity.

I recently delivered a keynote to a wonderful group of educators of primary school aged children at the Life Education annual conference. I feel strongly that we need to target the primary school age group and engage them constructively in order to educate about positive body image to aid in fostering a positive self-image.

From an early age children are susceptible to the messages they receive and negative messages are in danger of being absorbed into their belief system. If we can be proactive at the primary school level, we have every chance of reducing the incidence of disordered eating at an early age, as well as when children grow into teenagers.

So, what can parents do to help promote confidence and stability? Preserving an open channel of communication and being available to listen without judgement will help children to feel safe and secure inside the family environment. Also, finding a balance between encouraging achievement without heaping on the pressure and ensuring children are surrounded by strong, positive role models to promote self esteem.

Children emulate what they see and hear so parents, carers, teachers and other adult role models play a pivotal role in their development and have the opportunity to positively influence through discussion and affirmative action. Praising children for traits that are not associated with physicality is also important. Genuine praise about their various talents or, for example, the way they care for a sibling, is empowering and makes children feel important, which lends itself to positive self-image.

Leading by example will encourage children to develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, as will accepting that children have different eating habits from adults. Children look to adults for validation which means, as adults, we have a beautiful opportunity to affirm our love for the children in our care and help them cultivate self love and a positive self-image.

(i) Lowes, J. and Tiggemann, M. (2003), Body dissatisfaction, dieting awareness and the impact of parental influence in young children. British Journal of Health Psychology, 8: 135-147. doi: 10.1348/135910703321649123

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