Prevention: It’s Never Too Young To Start

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Children as young as ages 5–7 are aware of the cultural messages regarding body image and dieting. However, many adults are reluctant to discuss these problems with younger ages. Some adults deny the problem; others fear teaching children unhealthy behaviors.

Prevention comes in bringing these issues to the light. The following topics can be discussed with young children (as well as tweens and young adults).

Emotional Bites

A simple way to discuss emotional eating is to ask children about why they might eat besides being hungry. Surprisingly, children will gives answers such as bored, scared, nervous, and sad. Talk about more effectiveways to cope with emotions, emphasizing the value of sharing feelings with a trusted adult.

Say No to Teasing

Another concept is to emphasize that it iswrong to say hurtful things about other people’s body sizes. Children can be very creative in their cruelty, so it is helpful to role-play assertive responses to teasing. If a child cannot cope, they must know it is safe to ask for adult assistance. If a child complains of being teased or harassed, promote a zero tolerance policy about weight-based teasing. Most children are familiar with the saying “Do unto others as they would do unto you.” Update this lesson with an emphasis on body shape and size.

Body Talk

It may notbe useful to say simply “dieting is dangerous” because children are likely to define dangermore concretely (e.g.,being hit by a car or bitten by a dog.) Also,most children have heard that dieting is a way to avoid sugar oreat healthier, so labeling such behavior as dangerous may be confusing. Children also see plenty of media references to dieting as a way of life.

Emphasize the importance of listening to your body. That is, eating when you are hungry (not starving) and stopping when you are satisfied (not stuffed). Children intuitively grasp these concepts.

What About Junk Food?

Most children knowthedifference between healthy eating and junk foods. Normal eating should allow foroccasional desserts and special treats. Rigid food rules or policies that deprive may inadvertently cause children to secretly binge on off-limits foods. By taking the emotional intensity out of junk food, you will also dispel some of its magic and make it less appealing.

Let children know it’s healthier to eat nutritious foods because our bodies (bones, teeth, heart, muscles) and our minds work better and feel better when we do. But junk food is OK every once in a while because it is fun and tastes good.

Fitness Comes in All Sizes!

Educate children about the genetics of body size and the normal changes occurring in the body. Discuss their fears and hopes about growing bigger. Focus on fitness and a balanced diet. Exercise should be presented as a pleasurable way to stay healthy, strong, and happy. Try not to characterize exercise as either a way to stay thin or as compensation for calories eaten.

Be a Good Example

Children are taking notes about the ways that their parents use food, how they feel about their bodies, and their attitudes about fat in general. Since children look to adults to learn how it feels to live in an adult body, parents need to demonstrate positive body image or fake it for the sake of their child. Keep your size-anxieties in check and help children feel good about themselves for who they are on the inside.

Addressing the Issue in Schools

Recently, the nonprofit Eating Disorders Information Network (EDIN) made its first foray into a local grade school. We hosted “Listen to Your Body Week,” with each day focused on a different theme: Coping with Stress, Thin & Fat, Tummy Feelings & Heart Feelings, Growing Bodies, and Move Your Body. By sending the correct messages to children, starting early, and repeating these messages often, adults can provide the next generation with healthy body confidence.

By Dina Zeckhausen, PhD
Reprinted with from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2005 Volume 3, Number 2
©2005 Gürze Books

About the Author

Dina Zeckhausen, PhD, is the founder and Executive Director of EDIN, the Eating Disorders Information Network (www.edin-ga.org) and the author of the children’s book, Full Mouse, Empty Mouse and a 5-day Listen to Your Body Week Curriculum based on the book. Contact her at dina@edin-ga.org.

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