Those struggling with eating disorders have things in common, but each case is also unique. When it comes to finding reasons for the disorder, the same rules apply. It’s easy to point the finger at say, family (see previous posts here , here and here), but automatically apportioning blame is simplistic and harmful… What’s much harder is to suggest ways in which such disorders can be managed, or even prevented.
A friend of mine sent me a link to an article in Eating Disorders Review, by Andrea Wachter. Here are some of her suggestions for encouraging young people (and old!) to have a healthier body image;
- Model for your children that “fat” is not a feeling, but rather “feeling fat” can be a distraction from more difficult issues.
- Try not to label food as “good” or “bad.” Some foods are more nutrient dense than others, but morally all food is equal—it’s fuel! Talk with your kids about the nutritional value and variety of different foods, the art of cooking, and the fun and pleasure of eating.
- Talk to your kids about the difference between emotional and physical hunger and how the two often get mixed up. Physical hunger is a feeling in the belly that the body needs fuel. Teach kids to notice degrees of hunger and fullness as well as how to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. Emotional hunger is usually a need to express feelings or have feelings acknowledged. When kids are sad, they might need to cry, talk about it, or draw a picture. When they are mad, they might want to write, draw, punch a pillow, tell you about it with gusto, and have you really hear them.
- Along these same lines, talk about the role of feelings: that they are signposts for living, and not to be “stuffed” or “starved” away. Teach them that just as there are no “good” or “bad” foods, there are no “good” or bad” feelings.
- Do not comment on other people’s bodies. This sets up a comparison mentality that is harmful and hard to give up. Talk about how beauty is an inner quality that can be expressed in outer characteristics such as kindness and enthusiasm.
- Exercise with your kids for the joy of movement, not for how many calories you might burn.
- Look at family photos and talk about where your size and shape came from.
- Watch TV together and discuss the emphasis our culture places on looks, image, and thinness. Help them to notice special qualities in themselves like compassion and humor as well as things that interest them beyond their appearance. Teach them that they are enough just by being who they are—on the inside. (While you’re at it, think about yourself that way, too!)
- Do de-stressing activities together, like: listening to music, walking, spending time in nature, playing games, doing a hobby or craft, or reading and discussing a particular book.
- Help them to foster love for themselves when they look in the mirror. Teach them to “see” themselves with the same love that they feel for other people or animals in their lives.
- Make a list together of all the things that our bodies do for us. Help them to appreciate their various body parts rather than criticize them.
- Talk about what makes a good role model. Ask for an example of a person who seems to be a healthy, balanced eater with a positive body image. Discuss what qualities that person has that demonstrate good health. Ask your child to imagine embodying those same qualities.
- Teach your child that weight fluctuations are normal and healthy and that we all have a natural weight range just like we have a natural eye and hair color. Help them prepare for weight changes, especially girls approaching puberty.
- Role model and practice these things along with your child so they can experience you as a healthy eater with positive body image!