5 Preventative Strategies to Combat Eating Disorders in Adolescents

As an adult, I still struggle with the impulsive thoughts brought on by an eating disorder in my teen years. I don’t want my daughter to have the same unsafe idea of bodies and food as I grew up battling.

Idolizing thin bodies and believing oneself to be less than the ideal standard of beauty set by society is dangerous. When my family got our first computer, I would spend hours on the internet devouring detrimental information. I found myself on websites that praised skinny bodies and offered harmful tips on achieving total control over food. My fears of being unloved, out of control, unworthy, and different were fueled by a community of others with the same concerns.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 years old increased by 119% between 1999 and 2006. I can’t help but believe the commercialization of the internet, which happened around 1995, had some part in the significant increase of eating disorders in adolescents. With more information readily available it was easier for kids with low self-image to find avenues of perceived control. As a new mom, I am passionate about keeping my daughter safe from the hurtful thoughts an eating disorder whispers into the mind of an impressionable child. Here are some of the ways I strive to encourage a safe and healthy relationship with food and self-image.

Illustration of a mother, father, and child sharing a breakfast meal.

5 Ways to Prevent Eating Disorders in Kids

1. No Plate Shaming

Many of us cringe at the memory of our parents scolding, “Finish your plate before you can leave the table!” or “You’re not going anywhere until you finish your plate.”

This way of thinking has been deeply ingrained in us for generations, and so can be difficult to overcome. We have to think to ourselves, why are we forcing them to finish their plate? Is it because that cauliflower-and-cheese recipe took us a long time to make? (Which it did, by the way!)

Pressuring our children to eat more than what they are capable of is harmful. It reinforces negative ideas about the healthy food on their plates and decreases their trust in their intuition. They will be less likely to believe in their bodily cues. We should encourage our little ones to eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are done. Our job is not to force-feed them broccoli — it is to provide healthy options for them to choose from.

It is not usually said with malintent. As parents, we want to make sure our kids have enough nutrient-rich foods (which is why we looked up that cauliflower recipe in the first place, right?) Sometimes we want to say, “Just one more bite,” but even that can unfairly downplay their bodily autonomy. We need to extend more trust to our kids to know when they are done eating.

2. No Using Food as Reward System

Using food as a reward or punishment takes away from the healthy habits you are trying to instill. It’s also very confusing for a child to understand why it is okay to indulge in a treat when they’ve been good today, but it’s off-limits at other times. This can also accidentally encourage a correlation between self-image and unhealthy food by indicating it’s okay to have a cookie when you’re feeling good about your morning exercise, but it’s a “guilty pleasure” to have a big bowl of ice cream at the end of the day.

This can be a struggle when you just need them to be quiet through this zoom meeting, or just get through this grocery run. I can’t say I am perfect. In fact, I bribed her with a cracker for her pacifier an hour ago. I’m working on it!

3. Refrain from Body Comments

Compliments feel good, and they come naturally when directed at our kids. The best compliments are ones that encourage progress and praise behaviors — not bodies.

It can be instinctive to tell her how beautiful she looks today. The negative impact of these seemingly harmless comments is a hard pill to swallow. Children internalize the messages we give them about their bodies. By drawing attention to how their body looks, we imply that there is a satisfactory and unsatisfactory body image. This can lead to body image dissatisfaction, which is a leading cause of eating disorders. Research shows that these ideas can inculcate an unhealthy relationship between bodies and food in adolescents.

There are so many other things to compliment our children on. If you have to talk about their body, tell them that the sound of their clapping hands makes you feel loved. Tell them how proud you are that they use their voice. Tell them that you love how their body is ready to play after a full night’s rest. Tell them how you love every piece of them, no matter what.

4. Body Positivity by Example

My biggest hurdle since giving birth has been accepting and loving my body with all of its new flaws and differences from my pre-pregnancy body. My impulsive reaction to my body is not always pleasant, but I make an effort to rein it in when she has questions or points to areas of my body that I don’t like to look at. Telling her that I don’t like my stomach sends an implied message of satisfactory versus unsatisfactory body type.

We should avoid commenting on anyone’s body shape. Don’t call people names for their size, and don’t judge them by appearance out loud at all. The message that bodies are only valuable if they look a certain way is not what we want to teach our kids.

5. Family Meals

Making family mealtimes a priority has been proven to lower the risk of eating disorders in children. Bringing the family together with a healthy meal and engaging in loving conversation is essential. The critical piece of this family meal structure is to provide a positive atmosphere that shows support and extends an offering of love and respect. The family meal doesn’t need to be homemade or extravagant. It needs to do one thing: Bring everyone to the table.

We should strive to instill the message that character is more important than appearance. My daughter will know that her self-worth is not directly correlated to her body image. Even when I have to defy my natural instinct to fall back on negative patterns of self-talk and personal self-image, I will fight to do so.

These goals can be difficult, just like any process of unlearning something so deeply entrenched in our society. With our eyes open to the problem, we are already better equipped to handle what comes our way – so don’t beat yourself up. All of these things come with practice, and we are all doing our best at any given time.

I know I am not alone in my battle. For all the mommas out there struggling with body positivity and staying ahead of it for their children — we got this!

My toddler sleepily eats berries while seated on her father's lap after a long day of fireworks.
Marceline wanted to keep eating the sweet berries on the 4th of July even though she was exhausted!

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