An eating disorder is a serious, life-threatening illness that requires intensive medical intervention. Eating disorders are considered a major public health concern, and they often co-occur with other mental health problems like anxiety or depression. They can cause devastating health problems, and they’re closely associated with suicidal thoughts. The most common eating disorders are bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
Around three percent of American adolescents are affected by an eating disorder.1 While most don’t receive treatment, most of those who do get help are able to recover.
Initiatives aiming to prevent an eating disorder before it starts in a child are growing in importance for numerous government agencies and organizations across the nation. Although genetics has a role in their development, eating disorders are preventable. Here are four important things you can do to help prevent an eating disorder in your child.
Educate Yourself About Eating Disorders
Understanding the facts about eating disorders and knowing their signs is essential for prevention, but there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding them. Common myths about eating disorders include the broad misconception that they’re a lifestyle choice based on vanity, a phase, or a cry for help.
A large body of research on eating disorders has given us a great deal of information about their underlying causes, how to diagnose and treat them, and their effects on other areas of physical and mental health. Arming yourself with accurate information about eating disorders is one of the most important ways you can help prevent an eating disorder altogether.
Address Any Mental Health Issues Your Teen Has
Anxiety disorders affect 25 percent of all teens in the U.S., and nearly one-third show symptoms of depression.2 Unfortunately, largely due to the stigma of mental illness and limited access to treatment, fewer than half of teens with a mental illness get help for it. But the research overwhelmingly shows that treatment leads to healthier patterns of thinking and behaving and helps teens develop essential skills for coping with stress, trauma and other triggers that may underlie an eating disorder.
Set a Good Example
Model healthy self-esteem for your child by talking about yourself and others with respect. Place value on accomplishments and character rather than appearance, and avoid attitudes or actions that promote an ideal body image or the idea that dieting and losing weight will lead to happiness. Model healthy eating habits by eating a variety of foods, and avoid categorizing food as “good” or “bad.” Teach your child to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.
Help Your Child Learn to Cope with Stress and Conflict in Healthy Ways
Stress is a major factor in developing an eating disorder, and it can come from anywhere. Help your teen deal with stress in healthy ways, such as by getting adequate sleep and plenty of exercise each day, breathing deeply in stressful situations and practicing yoga or meditation. Help them stay organized at home and school. Help them handle conflicts with you, their peers, their siblings and others by offering a toolkit of strategies like looking at situations from different perspectives, walking away to cool down and talking it out honestly.
If you think your child might have an eating disorder, schedule an appointment with your family physician. The sooner it’s addressed, the better the outcome of treatment.