Back to Basics: Positive Body Image (Watch for Warning Signs of Eating Disorders)

     This month’s article was written and provided by Lindsay South, MA, LPC, RPT and the president of SMEDA and an active member of our group since the foundation of the organization.  She has been in practice since 1988 and treats children ages 5 to 12, adolescents, adults and families, working with issues like attention deficit and hyperactivity, learning disorders, weight and body image, eating disorders, divorce adjustment and trauma.

   

Watch for Warning Signs of Eating Disorders

     As summer is in full swing and bathing suits and shorts abound, many young teens become self conscious about their bodies. Both boys and girls are feeling more and more pressure to maintain a certain body type.

     The Winter 2006 issue of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) newsletter points out that, although obesity among teens has doubled in the last 30 years, so has the emphasis on eating, exercise and weight. Messages about diet and exercise can become triggers for some teens to develop an eating disorder.

     In my practice, parents often bring a reluctant child in for counseling about eating. Adults report a confusing picture of their child’s weight changes, different eating patterns and food choices.

     Why is one teen affected and not another? Why are some girls, and a growing number of boys, more likely to take an attempt to lose a few pounds and change eating patterns into a clinical eating disorder?

      Research suggests that eating disorders do have a genetic component. Numerous studies reveal that children with a family history of either bulimia or anorexia are at greater risk for developing one of these disorders themselves. Strong themes of perfectionism, competitiveness and drive, which may be harnessed successfully by siblings or parents, if turned toward dieting, can produce obsessive dieting and exercise behavior.

      Trauma or intense family conflict can certainly make children vulnerable to the development of an eating disorder. Environmental factors, including media and advertising, are a tremendous influence. Uncharacteristically thin views of women and extremely buff, bulked up men fill magazines of young readers. This constant barrage of unrealistic body images creates a lot of body dissatisfaction.

      How can you help your puberty-aged child? NEDA developed these guidelines to provide a healthy “to do” list:

  • Model fitness and balanced nutrition by striving to feel good, not achieve a certain appearance.
  • Help your children feel good about themselves no matter what they achieve.
  • Remember that dieting is not innocent behavior; it alters neurochemistry.
  • Intervene rapidly through expert consultation when dieting appears extreme and increasingly compulsive.
  • Take off blinders and be objective about any changes in behavior and eating habits.
  • Encourage self expression, verbalization of emotions, and independent thought and action whenever possible.
  • Have an open door policy of talking to your child about everything — magazine articles, family conflicts, school difficulties, relationship problems, etc.
  • Encourage eating all foods in moderation, rather than labeling particular foods “good” or “bad” or going on a restrictive diet.
  • Discourage extreme perfectionism and exactness in everyday activities.
  • Encourage a balanced lifestyle with attention to play, relaxation, work, relationships and spirituality.
  • Address family conflicts and sources of strain openly and honestly.

      If you have tried these principles at home and continue to have concerns about your child, one of the best places to go for an initial consultation is your pediatrician. Locally, the Southwest Michigan Eating Disorders Association maintains a website, http://www.southwestmichiganeatingdisorders.org/, which additional resources and a listing of nearby physicians, registered dieticians, and counselors skilled in the treatment of all types of eating concerns. Getting a jump start on eating related problems is far easier than treating a more entrenched disorder.