Focus on the Family

Eating Disorders and Kids

fromFocus on the Family's Youth Culture department

Many people with eating disorders started out by dieting in hopes of changing their bodies, believing it would make them happier. In fact, the vast majority of patients at Remuda Ranch (a treatment program for eating disorders) reveal that their eating disorder was triggered simply because they went on a diet, decided to reduce fat in their diet or wanted to eat healthier foods.

The diet industry spends $33 billion-a-year in advertising which contributes to a variety of destructive behaviors and thinking patterns, including the following:

Destructive Thought Patterns

The Destructive Eating Disorder Cycle

  1. We all search for love, acceptance and approval to increase our feelings of worthiness.
  2. Teens have their our own perception of how this need is satisfactorily met. When their need for love, acceptance and approval is not met in a manner that satisfies their perceptions, feelings of inadequacy may lead to low self-esteem.
  3. These negative feelings can cause extreme loneliness and pain.
  4. Eating disorder behavior numbs the pain temporarily.
  5. This addictive and obsessive behavior generally results in severe consequences.
  6. Guilt and shame over the consequences can be overwhelming for a teen.
  7. Often, this shame becomes a powerful feeling of self-hatred, which further distorts the teen's perception of his or her worth and identity.

Then, the cycle begins again. The key to the recovery process begins with professional help, which intervenes in this cycle, addresses the faulty beliefs and perceptions and helps create a more accurate and kinder view of self.

The goal is to help our teens see themselves through the eyes of God and to accept the gift of grace and forgiveness that is available in salvation through Jesus Christ.

If you're concerned that your teenager may be at risk, read on. Through solid facts and real-life stories, you'll find direction and hope for families threatened by eating disorders.


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Preventing Eating Disorders

There are several things you can do to help prevent an eating disorder in your child.

from Focus on the Family's Youth Culture department

There are several things you can do, besides talking to your preteen about body changes to expect during puberty, to help prevent an eating disorder in your child:

Examine your own attitudes and behaviors regarding weight and appearance. Talk with your children about genetic differences in body types and the devastating effects of irrational prejudice.

Examine what you are modeling. Do you exhibit acceptance of yourself and take appropriate measures to deal with your body function and size, or do you practice self-condemnation, criticism of your spouse's body, extreme dieting, etc.?

Examine your dreams and goals for your children and other loved ones. Are you overemphasizing physical appearance and body shape, especially for girls?

Don't shame or ridicule your child (verbally or nonverbally). Parents who do can send your child careening toward an eating disorder. Children need to know they are loved unconditionally. And since feeling helpless and out of control is common among eating-disordered individuals, stability and healthy relationships within families are extremely importance.

Be aware of the messages you send about the "chubby child" in your family. Do you communicate, through words and action, positive or negative feelings about his or her value, talents, and lovability?

Don't encourage or force your children to diet. It can actually push your kids toward unhealthy eating patterns that last a lifetime. The best approach is to simply provide balanced, nutritious meals.

Be involved and offer appropriate direction. Abdicating your parental role by offering your children too little direction can also be just as damaging as controlling to tightly. It can leave children feeling left adrift.

Don't say things that make your child feel responsible for your well-being or the well-being of others in the family.

Help to develop your teen's critical thinking skills by talking about celebrities whose lives are dysfunctional and filled with problems in spite of having the "perfect" body. Or do some research on how magazine photos are airbrushed and how movies use "body doubles." Young people who realize that "perfection" is not always what it seems are better able to establish realistic standards for themselves.

Avoid categorizing foods as "good" or "bad."

Be a good role model by eating sensibly, using exercise as a path to good health and enjoyment.

Do not avoid activities (such as swimming, water skiing, etc.) because they call attention to your size and shape.

Do whatever you can to encourage your teenager's self-respect based on intellectual, spiritual, athletic and social endeavors.

Practice complimenting people for what they say, feel and do — not for how thin they are.

Help your family become discerning regarding media messages that imply a slender body means happiness and success.

Look at what's wrong with the message "thin is best" rather than focusing on what's wrong with your body.

Use caution when exposing high-risk teens to anti-eating disorder materials. Books, documentaries and pamphlets warning against disordered eating have often been used by anorexics and bulimics as how-to guides.

If you suspect your teen is already developing an eating disorder, seek help immediately. Early detection and treatment can be very important, so consult with a qualified medical or mental health professional right away.


Common Risk Factors

While sports can benefit students, those in which size, speed, and weight are stressed can be a set-up for unhealthy eating.

from Focus on the Family's Youth Culture department

Factors That May Lead to an Eating Disorder

Pressure in Sports

While school sports and other athletic endeavors can benefit students in many ways, sports in which size, speed, and weight are paramount can be a set-up for disordered eating. Well-meaning parents and coaches who place undue pressure on teens can exacerbate the problem.

Sports that present the highest risk for developing eating disorders include:

Here, gender makes a big difference. Male athletes often do not experience the same emotional bondage many females do. A girl's identity and self-worth can become closely tied to her success at shedding pounds. For boys, a certain weight may be just a goal to meet in order to do well athletically.

But even if most boys don't get psychologically addicted to losing weight the way girls do, they still need to be careful not to do permanent harm to their bodies thorough unhealthy dieting. And it's worth noting that boys are not immune to developing an eating disorder. About one out of every 10 individuals with an eating disorder is male.

If your son or daughter chooses to participate in these "risk sports," do all you can to help him or her maintain a healthy lifestyle. If your own competitive edge keeps you from being objective in the matter, help your teen to develop an accountability relationship with a school counselor, youth leader or school nurse who can give feedback regarding his or her health.

No matter what risk factors apply to your teen, whether they be pressure from sports or from other areas of life, be alert (not paranoid, but aware) and take steps now that may prevent the development of an eating disorder.


Reading the Signs of Eating Disorders

It's crucial for parents to know the signs of an eating disorder.

from Focus on the Family's Youth Culture department

Work. School. Soccer practice. Computer club. Church committee meetings. Does any of this sound familiar? You understand the breathtakingly full life of a busy family — because you're living it. But amid the hustle, some things are priorities, and mealtime is one of them. As often as you can, you make sure that your family sits down for dinner together. And that's where the mystery starts. Lately, your 14-year-old daughter has been disappearing into the bathroom after dinner. She's also completely obsessed with her weight and the teeny-tiny jeans she just bought. At first you chalked it up to "normal teenage stuff," but now you're not so sure.

You're worried that she may have an eating disorder, but you don't want to blow things out of proportion. If you find yourself in a similar situation, you're not alone. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) reports that over 8 million people suffer from an eating disorder in the United States alone. And that means that their families suffer along with them.

How can you tell?

Early detection of an eating disorder may spare a teenager years of significant misery and disruption in his or her life. Take a moment and think about your teenager's behavior and the following signs of a possible eating disorder:

If you suspect your teen is showing signs of an eating disorder, don't delay. Consult with a qualified professional and get your teen the help he or she needs for the diagnostic and recovery process.


Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources for handling eating disorders

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