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.
To improve your child's body image and eating attitudes:
- Understand that healthy eating isn't restrictive or fat-free eating. In fact, children require fat in their diet to support the development of their neurological system into their early 20s.
- Eat healthily and spend plenty of time with your child so you can model these habits and gauge her emotional well-being (if your child is anxious, she may have dysfunctional eating patterns).
- Don't skip meals or eat food substitutes such as PowerBars instead of real food.
- Cook and provide healthful meals for your child and family. Enjoy these meals together as a family as much as possible.
- Assess your personal attitudes toward food, eating, weight management, and body image. Any unresolved issues you harbor might lead you to conclude that it's okay for your child to skip a meal or drink diet soda.
- Think out loud when you solve problems in front of your child. Eating when hungry and stopping when full is essentially about problem-solving -- knowing what you need and how to get those needs met.
- Teach your child the concept that if you take care of your body it will take care of you.
- Never diet, unless medically necessary.
- If your child has a weight problem, teach him to eat differently, not less.
- Stay physically active and show your child that there are many more meaningful and important aspects of life other than body appearance.
Abbie Natenshon is the creator of two Web sites, Empowered Parents and Empowered Kidz, and the author of When Your Child Has An Eating Disorder.