With spring around the corner, kids, tweens and teens across the country will doff sweaters for tank tops and jeans for shorts. And as a parent, you may feel more conscious than ever of our society's preoccupation with body image and how it affects your child.
Just as worrying as the rise in childhood obesity is the rising number of children — even very young children — who are obsessed with being thin.
"We see children as young as 6 years old complaining that their stomachs stick out, or bragging about having the chicken pox because it means going to bed without dinner, which means fewer calories," says Carolyn Costin, director of The Eating Disorder Center of California and the Monte Nido Treatment Center. "Kids see their moms and dads dieting and they want to diet too, even if they don't need to."
While not every child dissatisfied with his or her appearance will develop an eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia nervosa, a poor body image can have a serious, long-term impact on a child's emotional well-being. So how do you help your daughter or son develop a healthy, realistic body image in a society obsessed with thin and beautiful?
Costin offers some advice:
Know the Signs of a Problem
First, parents need to be able to recognize when their child might have a serious problem. While the majority of young people with eating disorders are female, health professionals are seeing a rise in the number of boys and young men suffering from eating disorders and poor body image.
Your child may have a problem if he or she:
• Believes if you aren't thin you aren't attractive.
• Thinks being thin is more important than being healthy.
• Does anything to make themselves appear thinner — buying clothes, cutting their hair, taking laxatives or starving themselves.
• Feels guilty after eating or punishes themselves after eating fattening foods.
• Counts calories and severely restricts calorie intake.
• Is obsessed with weighing themselves daily or sometimes multiple times each day.
• Believes you can never be too thin.
• Thinks that being thin and not eating are signs of will power and success.
How to help
The single most important way parents can help their children develop a healthy body image is to lead by example, Costin says. Children who hear their parents criticize themselves for being too fat will be more likely to think poorly of their own bodies.
"Avoid saying negative things about your own or other people's bodies, and work hard at promoting healthy body esteem," she says. "This may be difficult, especially if your own mother was not a good role model of a healthy body image."
If you suspect your own body image and habits are not providing a healthful role model for your child, ask yourself if you would want he or she to imitate your dietary and exercise habits or self-image. Would you send her off in the morning with nothing but a cup of coffee? Would you tell him to have a bad day if he gets on the scale and has gained a pound? "Your answers may surprise you," Costin says.
Help children find constructive ways to be healthy, including maintaining a good diet and regular physical activity. Share healthful pursuits, such as learning to cook nutritious meals together, with your child. But be sure to go out for ice cream too; balance is the key. Help with and praise creative endeavors, and applaud small but meaningful internal accomplishments, like her ability to remain calm, his quick wit, his sense of humor, her empathy for others.
Stay alert to changes in eating habits and body image and be prepared to intervene. Parents need to actively help their children find constructive ways to feel successful, accomplish something and earn the respect, attention and admiration so important to teens.
If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, seek help immediately.
Courtesy of ARAcontent