The onset of eating disorders usually occurs during the teenage years. If left untreated they can become severe or even life threatening. Mortality rates for teens with eating disorders are 12 times higher than the average for that age group, for all causes of death. Eating disorders usually begin during the teenage years. This foregrounds the importance of prevention and early intervention during these years. Puberty, social pressures, and peer pressure increase the chances that a teen will develop an eating disorder.
Although several factors, such as genetic predispositions, life stressors, and cultural elements, are factors that contribute to the development of eating disorders, parents can play an integral role in mitigating the impact of these factors on their teen. There are number of things that parents can do to filter negative messages out of the child’s environment and reinforce positive ones.
Enhance Media Literacy
A recent study showed that children and teenagers in America spend on average five and half hours a day consuming various media. Children and adolescents are inundated with mixed messages in regards to food and weight, messages that come both from advertising companies and from their peers. It is important to monitor your child’s exposure to media from early childhood and encourage them to have a critical view of messages they receive from their environments. One family I used to work with had an interesting strategy that they used until their daughters reached young adulthood. They would hold a competition each month where each member of the family would nominate the TV and/or magazine advertisement with the most negative messages about women’s body that they had found. They had these competitions each month, and they became part of an enjoyable family tradition. The discussions these competitions sparked provided opportunities for the family to foster positive body awareness in their teenage daughters. They also presented a safe environment for their teens to discuss their concerns about their weight.
Establish Family Meal Norms
Given everyone’s busy schedule, many families no longer eat together. Children and parents usually eat at different times, unfortunately most of the time in front of the TV, without much interaction. However, several studies have indicated that having a regular family mealtime is one of the foremost protective factors for the prevention of eating disorders. Having family meals will provide children with exposure to healthy food options and also help parents to monitor any unhealthy dieting and weight control behaviors in their teens. Many times parents are blind to their teens’ dieting behaviors, until an eating disorder becomes acute and a significant amount of weight is lost . However, by monitoring their teens’ eating behaviors, parents can identify signs of eating disorders early, which can significantly improve the chance of recovery. In addition to helping prevent eating disorders, research shows that family meals play an important role in improving the psychosocial wellbeing of teens and reducing the chance of the development of substance use disorders.
Model a Healthy Body Image
Parents as well as children are exposed to societal pressure to achieve “the perfect body,” which may lead them to engage in unhealthy dieting behaviors. It is important to remember than children observe their parents from a very young age, and they learn what is “normal” from their family of origin. Often children internalize the weight-related comments their parents make. These later will shape their attitudes toward their own self-images. One of my young adult clients, who was suffering from acute anorexia nervosa, shared with me that from early childhood she remembered her mother telling her that she felt disgusted by herself each time she had a “cheat meal.” She told me that even as an adult she would remember her mother’s facial expression after each meal, which impacted her own negative self-image and contributed to her complicated relationship with food.
Unfortunately, although parents can do everything “right,” there are several risk factors out of a their control that might increase a teen’s chance of developing an eating disorder (such as genetic predispositions, bullying, and community factors). However, if parents play their part in increasing their teens’ awareness of these issues as well as modeling a healthy self-image, they will provide their teens with more opportunities to keep communications open to identify and address early signs of disordered eating and eating disorders. It is crucial to seek treatment from an eating disorder specialist as soon as parents identify these warning signs, since early detection can significantly impact treatment outcome.
Dr. Nazanin Moali, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist. She uses Family Based Treatment (Maudsely Approach) to effectively treat adolescents with eating disorders. Dr. Moali completed an APA-accredited postdoctoral fellowship at Kaiser Permanete where she received extensive supervision in providing psychotherapy to this population. She currently owns the Oasis 2 Care practice, in Torrance, California.