A recent Oprah episode featured a 5-year-old child who is so concerned about getting fat that she spends recess time jogging around the playground to burn off calories. One of my clients, a camp counselor, told me that her 6- and 7-year-old campers routinely study the nutritional labels on items in their lunch sacks before eating.
Increasing numbers of young children are worried about their weight. Many are frightened of becoming fat, envisioning food as the enemy and therefore harmful to their body. Forty-two percent of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner. Ironically, childhood obesity is at its all-time high, afflicting around 5 million children.
Their parents have good reason to be concerned about the implications for their child's physical and mental health, well-being, and happiness. These children are anxious, they're confused about what healthy eating is and how the human body works, and they feel unsafe or out of control in other aspects of their life. Though they don't necessarily have an eating disorder, such attitudes toward food, weight, and body image at a young age put a child at high risk for developing one down the road.
When a child exhibits eating dysfunction at an early age, the problems typically lie in parental role modeling and misconceptions about what healthy eating is, rather than in identity issues or the emotional problems exhibited by older, eating-disordered children.
Though not the cause of their child's eating disorder, parents profoundly influence their child's attitudes toward food, eating, and self. The 5-year-old featured on Oprah watched her mother, who describes herself as healthy, regularly skip breakfast, complain about being fat, restrict her eating to low-fat foods, and substitute Slim-Fast for lunch. This little girl has apparently picked up on attitudes and behaviors modeled by her mother.