Anchor: When stories like the recent Abercrombie and Fitch controversy come out, many parents worry about the impact on their children.
Joining us to talk more is ParentMap Editor Hilary Benson. Hilary, we know kids are more tuned into media than ever before -- they see and hear these messages loud and clear, how does it affect kids?
HB: The most immediate impact is that it’s one more message that they are not good enough as they are. They are not pretty or sexy or thin enough to shop and ‘such and such’ a store… so how do they change that?
Adolescence is a tough enough time - there’s a lot of social pressure about things they can’t change about their looks or their life in general, but one thing that they can control is their weight. And for young people, mostly girls but also boys, this is where a problem can start.
Anchor: Let’s talk about those problems, and how parents can know if a child is going through a phase of skipping meals for instance, or if it’s more serious?
HB: Disordered eating can be just a phase, a parent might notice candy wrappers in their room after they’ve gone on a binge. Or possibly they bought laxatives or diuretics to shed weight… it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a psychiatric disorder, but it’s a red flag.
At that point, some signs to watch for an actual eating disorder problem, anorexia or bulimia are the two most common, the most obvious signs are:
- Rigid dieting – the child is obsessively watching what they eat, maybe counting calories, possibly cutting up food into very small pieces and hiding what they’re not eating
- Excuses for not eating – they are off to a dance lesson, they have homework, which may be legitimate, but they’re too conveniently away from parents so it’s harder for parents to notice that they’re child isn’t eating
- Trips to bathroom – either during the meal or immediately after eating. If the child is in a binge purge cycle, they may eat, but then want to expel the food
- Exercising too much – either at inappropriate times or in a driven way
And if those signs are missed, then really the most obvious one parents need to watch for is that their kid has gotten thin, they’re wearing clothes that are too big perhaps to hide that they’re wasting away.
Anchor: So, these are all signs of adolescents that want to be thin, but sometimes kids can react in the opposite way with food, is that right?
HB: Yes, in fact, Binge Eating Disorder is considered more common than anorexia and it’s present in bulimia. If a person eats an enormous amount of food, feels a loss of control and then perhaps feels disgusted with themselves afterwards -- and this happens several times a week over a period of months -- that’s a problem too. In this case, parents should keep an eye out for empty food containers, and large amounts of food that seem to disappear.
Anchor: So, in light of these messages, what are some ways we can prevent a child from slipping into these destructive patterns?
HB: There are a few things parents can do, and this is true for eating disorders, alcohol and drug use:
- Good communication with your child – check in with them, this starts much earlier than adolescence, this is something to work on when they’re younger so the trust is there when they get to the point where they need you
- Family meals – make them a priority, it’s one of the best places for picking up tension they may be feeling
- Model healthy habits – if you as a parent eat well, exercise regularly and model balance in your life, you’re setting an example. If you obsess over food and are constantly dieting, your daughters and sons pick up on that.
A final thought, remember that eating disorders often aren’t really about food. So if you think there’s a problem, you can’t just force them to eat. The eating disorder exists because of other underlying issues, and that’s what a parent, or mental health professional needs to address.
Anchor: For more information on this go to ParentMap’s website, ParentMap.com.