Eating Disorders in Teens and Children: How Parental Support Can Help

I generally emphasize two critical strategies to help parents support healthy eating habits and a positive body image in their kids and safeguard against the development of an eating disorder.
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Veterans in the field of eating disorders treatment have long acknowledged that child eating disorders, as well as eating disorders in adolescents, have become increasingly common in recent years, and reports released from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Archives of General Psychiatry confirm the observations of the community with startling figures.

In November 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report estimating that 0.5 percent of adolescent girls in the United States have anorexia nervosa, while 1 to 2 percent meet criteria for bulimia nervosa. In addition to acknowledging the heightened incidence of eating disorders in males of all ages, "Identification and Management of Eating Disorders in Children and Adolescents" also detailed increasing prevalence of eating disorders in young children, citing findings from an Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality analysis that found hospitalizations for eating disorders in children less than 12 years of age increased by 119 percent from 1999 to 2006.

Data released from the Archives of General Psychiatry earlier this year further support the rising prevalence of eating disorders and their associated behaviors in the adolescent population. The study, titled "Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in Adolescents," found that nearly one in 60 adolescents would qualify for an eating disorder diagnosis such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.

Even the eating disorders treatment community, in which many professionals had anecdotally observed the rise in eating disorders in adolescence and childhood and anticipated official findings in support of their predictions, was startled by these findings. Professionals have since been inundated with queries from parents seeking the surefire answer to the million-dollar question: "How can I 'eating-disorder-proof' my child?"

In other words, parents want to know what they can do to ensure that their child or teen doesn'tdevelop an eating disorder, body image disorder or related illness.

Unfortunately for parents, the complexity of eating disorders -- with biological, psychological and sociological underpinnings -- means that there is no silver bullet that will ensure that a child doesn't develop the illness. However, I generally emphasize two critical strategies to help parents support healthy eating habits and a positive body image in their kids and safeguard against the development of an eating disorder:

  • Focus on who your child is, not what they are. Many children and adolescents struggling with eating disorders don't feel very good about themselves, despite how perfectionist or accomplished they may be. Focusing on a child's self-esteem and sense of self, and not their accomplishments or how they look, can help lay a critical foundation for avoiding child eating disorders and setting the stage for positive teen body image.
  • Never put your child on a diet. Simply put, diets don't work. The surge in popularity of dieting is largely a byproduct of the obese society we live in, and while we need a "war on obesity" in this country, children and teens predisposed to or struggling with eating disorders are often the collateral damage of obesity prevention efforts. When these kids go on a diet, it'll almost always activate the latent genetic predisposition that sets them up to have an eating disorder.

In general, parents need to know that their attitudes, values and actions do not cause eating disorders, body image disorders or related illnesses. But parents can help their kids cultivate healthy attitudes toward food, body and weight by striving to be positive role models for them and avoiding negative messages about food and body image.

Learn more about eating disorders and treatment options available here.

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