Sunday, September 13, 2009

Recognising Disordered Eating in Children

In a recent media interview, I was asked whether it is my personal belief that negative body image in teenagers is perpetuated by images portrayed in the media. I believe that young people are susceptible to triggers if they are suffering low self esteem, and a common trigger is images of extreme thinness.

The average child in the UK, US and Australia sees between 20,000 and 40,000 television advertisements per year. They are bombarded with images about how they should look and what they should own. Children struggle to keep up, suffering from anxiety, stress and lower satisfaction in themselves. 1

Societal pressure is taking its toll on our young people. More than two thirds of 15 year old girls are on a diet and a quarter of children diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are boys.

Now more than ever, it is important that parents become aware of the early warning signs so they can gauge if their child is developing an eating disorder.

Jessica Burde, who writes for Helium, has this advice:

1. Eating with your child several times a week will allow you to get a feel for their eating habits. Watch for changes in those habits; a one night change shouldn't worry you, but a severe change that lasts for several weeks is a concern.

2. Watch for sudden weight change i.e. a noticeable change in weight within a short period of time.

3. Listen for 'fat' talk. When your child stops celebrating weight loss, and is not happy no matter how many kilos they've lost, it is a red flag.

4. Watch for bones. Some young people are good at hiding their eating habits so if you start seeing your child's collar bones and wrist bones sticking out, take them to a doctor.

5. Obsessive Eating; an inability to stop eating, especially in times of stress. Some clues to watch for:

a) Are they enjoying food? An obsessive eater generally doesn't enjoy what she or he eats, they just eat. Be worried if your child is eating large amounts of food constantly, but doesn't realise how much they are eating, and/or isn't enjoying it.

b) Watch for cravings - obsessive eaters have them all the time. They go around with food constantly in their hand, and can get irrationally upset if they can't find something to quiet the craving. These cravings will typically worsen when under stress.

In my book Why Can't I Look the Way I Want; Overcoming Eating Issues, there is a chapter dedicated to early warning signs. These signs are often subtle and can be passed off as 'normal' behaviour - unless you know what to look for. Some common ones are avoiding eating with others, obsession with food preparation and a change in attitude towards food e.g. becoming vegan or cutting out entire food groups under the guise of wanting to be 'healthy'.

Another lesser known warning sign is ritualistic behaviour when eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, insisting that meals are eaten at a particular time each day or obsessive use of the same crockery and cutlery.

Whilst images in the media can heighten our children's anxiety when it comes to self image and body image, if we become vigilant about the early warning signs and therefore understand what constitutes disordered eating, we have a very real chance of catching the behaviour early and reducing the alarming incidence of eating disorders.

1 Williams, Z 2006, The Commercialisation of Children, Compass, London

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