Eating disorders prevention: parents are key players
Eating disorders are much easier to prevent than to cure, and parents are in the best position to do that work. Most of your efforts will be carried out in the context of the family, not in organized programs. Keep in mind at all times that what you do is a much more powerful message than what you say.
Reject guilt. Most parents of eating disordered children are good people who have done the best they knew how to do as they raised their kids. In spite of their efforts, their children fell into anorexia, bulimia, or another disorder. Science is telling us that genetic factors that determine personality have more influence than previously suspected in the development of eating disorders. Those factors seem to be activated when a vulnerable person begins to diet, buying into the belief that losing weight will somehow make life happier.
At that point parents tend to fall into guilt and denial. Neither is helpful. Instead of bemoaning what you did or didn’t do (which may or may not have contributed to the current problem), take action and arrange an evaluation with your child’s physician and a mental health specialist. The sooner treatment is begun, the easier it will be to turn matters around. The longer the symptoms are ignored, and the longer parents hope the behaviors are “just a phase,” the harder the road to recovery will be.
We hope you read the following guidelines before the situation becomes critical. Use the suggestions to create a healthy environment for the growth of your child’s self-esteem and to counter some of the destructive media messages about body image flooding today’s young people.
If you have a child for whom this pattern fits, consider the following guidelines: Don’t let him or her diet. Provide opportunities for healthy eating instead. Don’t nag your child about losing weight to make his weight class or fit into her prom dress. God and Mother Nature intended our bodies to be a certain healthy weight. Trying to override that weight can lead to tragic consequences. Dieting is the strongest eating disorders trigger there is.
Prevention, especially if your family carries some degree of genetic predisposition to the thoughts, moods, and behaviors that can combine to produce an eating disorder, demands a great deal of consciousness and vigilance on your part. Don’t make the mistake of thinking, “We are of good stock. My child could never become eating disordered.” Given sufficient peer pressure to diet, societal demands for thinness, and parental expectations of excellence, a vulnerable child can collapse into an obsessive pursuit of thinness and compulsive, unhealthy behaviors to reach that goal.