Eating disorders have always affected young people in large numbers. However, the average age of onset has been getting still lower in recent years. The number of girls aged 15-19 with anorexia nervosa has increased every decade since 1930, and more and more pre-adolescents are also developing eating disorders. This means that it is more important than ever that parents help their children to have a positive image of their own bodies from a very young age. Parents can encourage their kids to appreciate what makes their bodies special and to have a healthy rather than antagonistic relationship with food.
Don’t Badmouth Your Own Body
When you criticize your body in front of your children, they learn that it is OK to have negative thoughts about their own bodies and to nitpick certain parts of their appearance that don’t live up to some standard of perfection. However, when you are positive about your looks and what your body can do, it helps children to learn that unique bodies are wonderful and that you do not have to look a certain way in order to feel great about yourself. It’s important to maintain this positive attitude even when you are not interacting directly with your kids. Children really are sponges, absorbing everything that goes on around them even when they don’t seem to be paying attention. If you say body-positive things to them but disparage your appearance with friends or a spouse while your children can hear, they are going to internalize a very mixed message.
Don’t Criticize Other People
You may never dream of criticizing the way your child looks, but if you criticize the appearance of other people, your child is still going to learn that these things are important. Furthermore, it can teach children to be worried about what strangers think about them or to worry about what acquaintances are thinking behind their backs. This second fear can be particularly damaging, because it can teach them to distrust compliments and other forms of encouragement.
Don’t Give Food a Bad Name
Whatever restrictions you choose to place on your own diet, it is important that your children eat a truly balanced diet with all the major food groups. If you vilify certain important foods because you believe they cause weight gain, it teaches kids that eating is about avoiding negative outcomes rather than acquiring energy and critical nutrients. Of course, you can still teach children that certain foods with truly minimal nutritional value should be eaten in relatively small amounts, but it is entirely inappropriate to teach them that important food groups are bad because a fad diet says they will make you fat.
Foster Self-Esteem With Praise and Encouragement
Praising and encouraging children for all of the great things they do is also an important part of early intervention against eating disorders. While a positive body image is important, having high overall self-esteem also helps kids recognize that they have many positive traits and that their self-worth is not entirely wrapped up in their appearances. This can be especially valuable during puberty when even the most body-confident people go through changes that can make them feel insecure.
Prepare Children for Natural Body Changes
However, preparing kids for these changes can also make the always-difficult process of puberty more manageable. Puberty naturally involves weight gain as the body rapidly develops, and kids who aren’t prepared can feel that their own habits are the problem and attempt to arrest these changes by making extreme diet or exercise choices.