Eat well and set example

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Any suggestion of an eating disorder should be taken seriously. If your teenager unexpectedly starts to diet, for example, you need to monitor what is happening, writes parenting columnist Ian Munro.

Ian Munro
Ian Munro
Many girls and now more boys than ever before go through body image "crises". Dieting, while not to be recommended for your average healthy youngster, is not in itself a problem. It potentially becomes a problem when it becomes obsessive.

A teen to watch closely is one who cannot stop thinking about body shape and weight and who becomes extremely faddish about the sorts of food that are acceptable. If exercise begins to absorb all leisure time and you notice long periods regularly spent in the bathroom or toilet after meals then you have reason to be concerned. Be aware that "training" for some endurance competition could be used as a cover.

As always, setting an example is a good starting point in preventing eating disorders. Ensure that the family eats healthy food and that you set an example by eating and exercising well rather than going on and off crash diets. Exercise could involve family outings that include physical activity such as walking, swimming, bike riding, social sports or more strenuous hikes.

It’s harder and harder to counter the wafer-thin or muscular body image indoctrination that comes through magazines and day and night through television. The best we can do, apart from limiting television watching, is to work at ensuring that our children feel good about themselves in all sorts of ways so that the focus of who they are does not become the shape of their body.

Youngsters with eating disorders are often high achievers and perfectionists. Here, as parents, we can contribute unintentionally, maybe sometimes deliberately, by giving our youngsters the impression that they will be a great disappointment if they don’t excel in some area regarded as important by us, such as education or sport. Not only a disappointment but also somehow not worthy of love and attention. As I have said so many times in this column, the love of parents must always be unconditional.

Parental expectations can also place youngsters in a situation where they put enormous pressure on themselves to perform or deliver at a level of perfection that is more than should be expected or more than can be sustained because it comes to involve every single thing that they do. Life becomes very stressful and they become very disappointed in themselves.

If you have concerns, try some casual conversation about weight and eating to get an impression of their thinking. However, before directly challenging your youngster, it would be wise to talk with your doctor first. Denial is very much a part of an eating disorder.


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