Children and Teens
Afraid to Eat: Helping Youth in Today’s Weight-Obsessed
World by Frances M. Berg (Healthy
Weight Network, 2001)
When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder: A Step-by-Step Workbook
for Parents and Caretakers by Abigail H. Natenshon (Jossey
Your Child Have an Eating Disorder?
by Louise Hajjar Diamond
society, the media bombards us with mixed messages about food and
fitness. As we watch television, we see commercials for “super
sizing” fast food and weight loss centers all in the same commercial
break. It seems that many Americans are obsessed with food yet constantly
struggling with their weight. While meal portions are getting larger,
waistlines are expected to be trim. These conflicting messages are
difficult for sophisticated adults to reconcile and they may even
be harmful to our impressionable children.
Although it is important for all of us to strive to eat well, exercise
regularly, and to maintain a healthy body weight, many of our children
have unrealistic expectations about how they should look. When faced
with conflicting societal pressures, many children come to believe
that they are overweight and unattractive, regardless of their body
size. Unfortunately, the shame these children feel is often reinforced
not only by our culture as a whole, but by parents, family members,
and educators as well.
THE DANGEROUS PROBLEM
The self-esteem and image problem can lead to serious health problems
and potentially fatal consequences. One twelve-year-old middle school
student killed himself because he was in so much pain after experiencing
years of harassment for being overweight. He decided to take his own
life rather than return to school after summer break.
While this child’s reaction to his situation is at the far end
of the spectrum, it is not unique in terms of the potential dangers
of image and eating problems. Eating disorders have a relatively high
death rate. Many of these deaths are caused by complications caused
by extreme starvation as well as suicide.
Author and licensed nutritionist, Frances M. Berg, outlines in her
book, Children and Teens Afraid to Eat: Helping Youth in Today’s
Weight-Obsessed World, the dangerous misconceptions many American
children hold about body image. Ms. Berg states, “teenage girls
have the poorest nutrition of any group in America.” More than
half of teenage girls don’t eat enough for health, energy, or
strength, Berg continues. Regardless of their weight, approximately
two-thirds of teenage girls and one-forth of teenage boys are trying
to lose weight. By fifth grade, half of all girls report feeling “too
fat” and twenty to forty percent of these girls are actively
How can parents determine if their child is suffering from an eating
disorder? What can parents do to prime their children into being healthy
eaters and maintaining a positive body image?
DEFINING EATING DISORDERS
Approximately ten million Americans suffer from eating disorders and
ninety percent of those afflicted are age twenty or under. One percent
of teenage girls has anorexia and three percent suffer from bulimia.
According to Abigail H. Natenshon, “kids are developing eating
dysfunction problems at ever-younger ages. The average eating disorder
onset has recently slipped from thirteen to seventeen to nine to twelve.”
Ms. Natenshon’s book, When Your Child Has an Eating Disorder:
A Step-by-Step Workbook for Parents and Caretakers, is a sensitive
and insightful look at the complex topic of eating disorders. The
author has thirty years experience as a psychotherapist who specializing
in treating patients suffering from eating disorders.
It is normal for adolescents to be aware of their appearance and body
image. It is important to remember that most children who have concerns
and want to loose weight aren’t necessarily eating disordered.
Eating disorders are extremely intricate in nature.
Clinical eating disorders take on several forms.
Anorexia is characterized by an individual's refusal
to maintain body weight at or above the minimally normal weight
for her height. Persons suffering from anorexia have an abnormal
fear of becoming fat, distorted body image, and absence of menses.
They may deny their own hunger and develop a fear of food itself.
the repeated cycle of out of control bingeing followed by purging
(self-induced vomiting) or by fasting to compensate for the intake
or Compulsive Overeating is defined when a person eats without being
hungry or continual eating without regard for physiological cues
not to do so.
OF EATING DISORDERS
Even though the obsession about being thin and concern of being overweight
is pervasive in our society, only a minority of the general population
actually has eating disorders. Ms. Natenshon explains that genetic vulnerability
may be a major factor defining why only certain individuals develop
eating disorders despite the universal pressures of societal values
to be thin.
Ms. Berg’s points out, “factors that increase a dieter’s
vulnerability to eating disorders are believed to be genetic, biological,
psychological, sociocultural and familial.” Children who are sexually
or physically abused may be more prone to developing an eating disordered
than children who are not abused.
The distinguishing factor between quirky or strange dieting or eating
habits and eating disorders is the child’s motivation for loosing
weight and the manner and rate of the weight loss. “When dysfunctional
eating becomes a means to solve emotional problems, there is cause for
concern,” Ms. Natenshon explains.
Eating disordered individuals may use their eating habits to “control”
inoffensively instead of having disruptive “acting out”
behaviors. Food is something kids can control in their lives without
interference. Children with eating disorders may seem to be “good
kids” who want to do everything right.
WARNING SIGNS OF DISEASE
Eating disorders are diseases and they require and can respond to appropriate
treatment. Many people who suffer from these conditions go on to live
productive and happy lives after successful intervention.
Some behavioral red flags parents can look for include:
a child brings her own food to an event,
a child stops eating in front of others,
a child eats rapidly or alone,
a child makes excuses for having to use the restroom after eating,
with weight issues,
rapid weight loss,
with self-control and self-regulation,
of menstrual period.
child might only have a few of these warning signs and may still
be in need of help.
Ms. Natenshon wants parents to know that; “ages nine to twelve
are particularly pivotal in preventing eating dysfunction and in promoting
the child’s positive sense of body and self.” Parents need
to look beyond the issue of food and explore emotional factors.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
Ms. Natenshon warns, “parents’ well-intended efforts to
teach their child healthy eating habits typically backfire, leading
to misconceptions and food phobias.” Although parents are not
to blame for their child’s eating disorder, they may play a part
in the onset and the recovery of the disease.
Parents should be aware of their comments about their own body image
and avoid making critical statements about themselves in front of their
kids. Avoid conveying attitudes of disappointment or conditional love
to your child. Promote positive self esteem by listening and respecting
your daughters and sons alike.
Spending quality time with your child teaches her or him that they are
worthy of love and acceptance just for being themselves. As often as
possible, share meals and conversation with your child. Promote a home
environment where it is safe to express feelings. Encourage your kids
to come to you with their problems and really listen when they do. Assist
your child in developing skills that lead to success and personal expression.
Give your children praise for their inner beauty and de-emphasize the
importance of outer appearance.
It may be difficult to tell whether a child is suffering from an eating
disorder. Maintaining a positive connection, open communication, and
being a healthy role model may help to prevent the onset of many adolescent
problems including eating disorders. Attending to early warning signs
that are behavioral, emotional, and physical will assist a parent in
deciding when to seek professional help.
Louise Hajjar Diamond is a guidance counselor, freelance writer and
mother of two. To reprint this article, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.