What can parents do to help prevent a child, usually a daughter, from developing an eating disorder? Here are some guidelines:
* Encourage her to take control, not of food and her body, but of issues of real importance such school, extracurricular activities and family life. Assist her in making her own choices, rather than making them for her, and invite her input on matters that affect your family. Armed with real power and control over her life, she is less likely to turn to food.
* Teach her as early as preschool that she is exceptional regardless of her accomplishments. Emphasize that what makes her so is not her grades or her mastery of a certain hobby, but her uniqueness as an individual.
* Emphasize enjoyment of activities rather than performance. Many youngsters happily begin taking after-school classes in ballet or gymnastics, only to feel as pressured in their hobbies as they do in school. For some, team activities relieve pressure. For others, frequent reminders that you love and appreciate them regardless of their performance may help.
Studies suggest that teenagers may turn to anorexia as a way to out-perform others in weight management, eating less and exercising. For instance, a 1990 study by Ruth Striegel-Moore, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University, found that female college students with eating disorder symptoms were more competitive than those without the symptoms. By emphasizing the value of activities for enhancing friendships, staying healthy and learning new skills, you can teach your child that there's more to life than winning.
* Model healthy eating. Many girls who develop eating disorders have mothers or fathers who diet rigorously. Many put their daughters on diets while they're still in elementary school. One clear fact about eating disorders: Dieting is a risk factor. The more a person diets, the more likely it is that she will develop a disorder.
A healthy, balanced approach to eating will help a child far more than putting her on a diet. However, if your child seems to favor sweets over everything else, stock up on apples, oranges, cherries, even fruit-sweetened muffins and cookies. The more you make an issue out of your child's eating, the more of an issue it becomes. Many girls turn to bingeing or fasting to protest parental attempts to control their eating.
If you have an eating disorder yourself, get help from a therapist or support group. Your children pay a lot of attention to what you do (although they may deny it) and, however unwittingly, emulate your behavior.
* Model healthy living. The balanced approach to eating also applies to other areas of our lives. Do we take time out to care for ourselves? If you want your child to take care of herself, show her how.
* Respect your child's hunger and satiety. Eliminate the "Clean the Plate Club." Stomachs are the arbiters for deciding when to stop eating. Permit your children to take as much or as little of the foods you serve, and to leave portions on their plates if they don't like or can't finish them.
* Foster a healthy body image. From an early age, encourage your child to view her appearance in a positive light, focusing on aspects she likes rather than those she'd like to change. Model this behavior when you speak about your own body. Too many parents often ridicule their own bodies, yet are surprised when their children begin disparaging theirs.
* Know the risk factors for eating disorders and stay alert. If your child appears to be dieting, talk to her about the dangers. Keep the lines of communication open so that she feels comfortable turning to you. Talk to your children about the pressures they face in today's world to be attractive and successful; explain the subtle ways our culture perpetuates myths about how women and men should look and act.