There’s an epidemic of eating disorders in our country, especially with children and teens. Most of us understand the term “eating disorders” as anorexia and bulimia. The age for developing these disorders has steadily decreased and we’re now seeing cases of anorexia in children as young as seven. However, anorexia and bulimia do not usually develop until puberty. Until then, children may have eating disorders such as: avoiding food, weight loss, obsessive dieting, overweight, obesity, struggles over eating, and anxiety about body image. With these, there’s an increased risk of full-blown bulimia and life-threatening anorexia showing up later. To help understand how children develop food and weight problems, and what a parent can do to help their child overcome an eating disorder, I have interviewed therapist Shoshana Kobrin.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and have Masters’ degrees in literature and in psychology. I currently have a psychotherapy practice in Walnut Creek, California. My specializations include disturbances with food and weight, eating disorders, child therapy, couple counseling, and hypnotherapy. I provide workshops for schools, hospitals, parent teacher associations, and corporate and community organizations in order to challenge the epidemic of obesity and eating disorders. The book I’ve written on the spirituality of eating disorders is now approaching publication stage.”
How do children develop an eating disorder?
“The causes of eating disorders are complex and multilayered. Some may be genetic. Chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite, and digestion could be unbalanced, leading to comfort eating. Body type, build, and an inherited propensity to gain weight are also an issue. A child with a highly sensitive personality absorbs others’ emotions, feels overwhelmed and turns to food or fasting for relief.”
“Lack of connection is key. When our human need for closeness is not fulfilled, this can be expressed through food-related behaviors. Troubled family dynamics when parents are unhappy or their relationship is difficult, are a major cause of eating disturbances.”
“If there’s an unspoken family rule that feelings may not be expressed, children cannot be themselves. Then emotions are expressed through disturbed eating. There’s a high correlation between sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of children, and eating disorders. Stressful circumstances such as parents’ drug or alcohol addiction, divorce, death, long work hours, financial hardship, and moving from one place to another, also increase the chances of an eating problem.”
“Another factor is our hungry, consumer-oriented, media-driven culture. Value is placed on thinness and the “perfect” body, rather than on moral and spiritual qualities. The “ideal” woman – portrayed by models, Miss America , Barbie dolls, and screen actresses – is 5’5, weighs 100 pounds and wears a size 5. Increased technology means that children are more sedentary and relate to the TV, computer screen or the cell phone rather than to one another or to the family.”
What type of impact does an eating disorder have on a child’s overall life?
“A child’s difficulties in life are the result of both the eating disorder and the causes of it. With decreased self-esteem, a child may become shy and withdrawn, or aggressive and destructive. Children can be remarkably cruel to those who are different. A child who is overweight or obese may have a hard time with school sports and is often teased, ridiculed or ostracized. Children who avoid food feel poles apart from their peers who can eat anything they like.”
How can a parent help a child overcome an eating disorder?
“Children are helpless to change their circumstances, and even adults with eating disorders need outside assistance to change their eating patterns. Prevention is the best cure. Parents who seek help for their own anger, depression, anxiety, or addictions may prevent their child from having problems with food. Often a caring grandparent, neighbor, or a teacher provide the consistency, warmth and encouragement a child needs to stay emotionally healthy.”
What advice would you give the parent of a child with an eating disorder?
“Have your child medically checked out. Many children crave foods with gluten or sugar because they are allergic to them. Only 5% of diets have a permanent effect, so never encourage your child to diet.”
“Keep a balanced variety of fresh, unprocessed, additive-free, low-fat and low-sugar foods in the house but allow some treats as well. Never force children to finish all their food. Buying food and cooking as a team effort can be fun, increasing family closeness.
Monitor television and computer time and challenge the pressure your children receive from their peers and from the media. Encourage individuality rather than conformity. Consider waiting until your children’s adolescence before you buy them cell phones.
Take a careful look at your state of mind and go to individual, couple or family therapy if necessary. Find ways to decrease family stress. Curtail children’s outside activities so you’re not always in a time crunch. Your child’s participation in exercise or sports is important, but should not be excessive, since that can cause an exercise addiction. Model a healthy attitude toward weight and food yourself and be positive about your child’s weight and shape.”
“Keep a watchful (not over-protective!) eye on your children’s safety. Check out neighbors, relatives, babysitters, and parents of children’s friends for their stability and freedom from addictions. If you notice any negative changes in your child’s behavior or attitude to food and body, take steps to find out and correct the cause.”
“Be open to children’s feelings, especially negative ones. Spend quality time with your children each day, asking open-ended questions, really listening to them and giving positive, understanding feedback. Hug, hold, and cuddle your children, tell them how much you love and appreciate them.”
“Lastly and most important: Take care of your own needs, so that you’re contented, fulfilled, and able to fill your child’s needs. Accept your children for whom they are, value and love them unconditionally, for they are your gifts and your gifts to the world.”
Thank you Shoshana for the interview on eating disorders in children. If you would like to contact Shoshana Kobrin you can call her at (925) 256-8503, email her at Kobrinkreations@sbcglobal.net or check her website out on www.shoshanakobrin.net.
Bulimia Nervosa: Symptoms and Treatment
Eating Disorders: Questions and Answers
Understanding Anorexia Nervosa