How to help prevent eating disorders in children and teenagers
As a parent, caregiver, or educator, it's important to be careful of what we say to children and teenagers about their bodies, food, and weight. Our words and actions can have a powerful impact on their self-esteem, body image, and relationship with food.
In this article, I'll provide a simple guide for what to say to help prevent eating disorders and inspire well-being in children and teenagers.
1. ENCOURAGE A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
Instead of focusing on weight or calories, encourage children and teenagers to develop a healthy relationship with food. Teach them about the importance of balanced meals, variety, and moderation. Help them understand that all foods fit into a balanced diet, and there are no "good" or "bad" foods. Avoid labelling foods as "junk" , "bad" , "naughty" or "unhealthy," as this can create a sense of guilt or shame around eating.
2. EMPHASIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-CARE
Teach children and teenagers that taking care of their bodies is important for their overall health and well-being. Engaging in a self-care routine has been clinically proven to reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression, reduce stress, improve concentration, minimize frustration and anger, increase happiness, improve energy, and more. Encourage children and young people to get enough sleep, stay hydrated, and engage in regular physical activity that they enjoy. It can be fun in itself to help them explore lots of different activities until they find self-care activities that they might enjoy and that can work for them. Emphasize the importance of self-care activities like meditation, mindful colouring , playing with a pet, yoga, walking in nature or reading to reduce stress and promote mental health.
"Engaging in a self-care routine has been clinically proven to reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression, reduce stress, improve concentration, minimize frustration and anger, increase happiness, improve energy, and more."
3. FOCUS ON POSITIVE BODY IMAGE
You can help children and teenagers develop a positive body image by focusing on their strengths and talents, rather than their appearance. Encourage them to appreciate their bodies for what they can do, rather than what they look like. Avoid making negative comments about their own or others' bodies, as this can reinforce negative body image and contribute to the development of eating disorders.
With teenagers it can be powerful to shine a light on the effects of social media. Whether they're following close friends and family or celebrities and meme accounts, it’s important they know who they're following and why. Encourage them to take a look at the accounts they follow and consider:
Am I seeing posts that make me feel unhappy or put me in a bad mood?
Does this account make me feel like I need to be someone I’m not?
Am I comparing my life, body or success with others?
Ask them to pay attention to how the images, videos, slogans, self-styled health gurus and attitudes they are seeing on social media are impacting how they are feeling about themselves and their body. If they answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to take a detox, or hide particular people from their feed or hit unfollow. Removing this type of content from their view can help feel a sense of relief and can easily be replaced with genuinely positive accounts that make them feel good.
4. TEACH THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-ACCEPTANCE
Help children and teenagers learn to accept and love themselves for who they are. Emphasize that everyone is unique and special in their own way, and that there is no one "perfect" body type or appearance.
Separating the child or teenager from their action or behaviour can also help foster self-acceptance. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck shows that children who are told they are “smart” when they do “something smart” start to believe they’re “dumb” when they do “something dumb”. She suggests that instead of defining children by actions “you’re smart”, parents should praise the action “that’s a smart thing you did”.
This also works with self-acceptance. Teaching children that they are not bad when they've done something bad ("that was a mean thing to do" rather than "you're mean") or they're not gifted or stupid if they've done something well or badly ("you learned that speech really quickly" rather than "how clever you are!). It may feel it can only be a positive thing to tell them how clever they are, but making a child's actual worth contingent on this sort of achievement can lead to a life time of clinical perfectionism and feelings of inadequacy.
Self-acceptance can also be affected by comparing ourselves to other people. Encourage children and young people to focus on their own personal goals and achievements, rather than comparing themselves to others and work to be a good role model by not comparing them to other children or their siblings.
"Separating the child or teenager from their action or behaviour can also help foster self-acceptance."
5. BE A POSITIVE ROLE MODEL
Lead by example and model healthy behaviours yourself. Show children and teenagers that you value self-care, positive body image, and balanced eating habits. Avoid talking negatively about your own body or engaging in unhealthy eating behaviours, as children are like sponges and will be picking up actions, attitudes and behaviours from those they see around them.
Eat together Shared mealtimes are a great opportunity for children to pick up healthier eating habits or to counter negative habits they may have seen elsewhere (for instance that aunt who's always on a diet). They can also be a chance for children to try a new food which they might see others eating and enjoying.
Talk about foods you enjoy Commenting on foods that you like can help direct children's attention to that food and encourage them to try it too. For example, "Daddy really likes these mushrooms " or "Look how tasty this peanut butter is".
Avoid making negative comments about foods We don't all like the same foods, and that's fine, but avoid commenting on disliked foods (e.g., "urgh, I don't like celery at all") as children are very likely to pick up on it and it can make them much less likely to want to try these foods. Keep thoughts about disliked foods to yourself.
The things we say and do can have a powerful impact on the well-being of children and teenagers. By focusing on encouraging a balanced relationship with food, emphasizing self-care and positive body image, and teaching self-acceptance, we can help prevent the development of eating disorders and inspire well-being in the young people in our lives.