Eating disorders and disordered eating among children and adolescents have become increasingly common in recent years, especially since the onset of COVID-19 (McCarthy, 2022; Smith, 2021). One study estimates that 6% of children between the age of 10 and 11 meet the criteria for subclinical anorexia nervosa, 0.2% for subclinical bulimia nervosa, 0.5% for subclinical binge eating disorder, and 1.1% for clinical binge eating disorder (Murray et al., 2022). By high school, the prevalence of disordered eating increases drastically, with approximately 15 to 30% of adolescents having “disordered eating severe enough to warrant medical evaluation” (Campbell & Peebles, 2014). Thus, disordered eating prevention and awareness can help protect children and adolescents from this experience at an early age.
National Child’s Day, celebrated on November 20, offers an opportunity to reflect on how parents and caregivers can help their children navigate their relationship with food. Despite best intentions, caregivers can inadvertently contribute to the development of childhood and adolescent eating disorders. Research has found that eating disorders have a heritability of 40-50% which indicates that having a parent or sibling with an eating disorder puts a child at a greater risk of developing one themselves (Watson et al., 2018). The way caregivers speak about food, their body, and the bodies of others in front of and with their children can also play a significant role in the narrative children internalize around food, their own body, and diet culture. Subsequently, this can affect children’s eating behaviors. For instance, parents and caregivers may suggest that the word “fat” is offensive, dictate when and what children eat, negatively talk about excessive food intake, label foods as good or bad, or openly discuss their own diet (Tips to Help…, n.d.). It is also important to recognize that parents and caregivers are often not aware that they may be perpetuating harmful stereotypes about the body or food. Therefore, actively prioritizing their own relationship with food and their body can be a critical step in helping children and adolescents navigate their eating behaviors and avoid disordered eating.
It is important to remember that myriad factors influence a child’s relationship with food. While parents and caregivers can help in the prevention of eating disorders, it is essential that they not be too harsh on themselves and recognize that navigating one’s relationship with food is complex and often takes time. Although starting early is ideal, it is never too late to help children and adolescents develop a more positive relationship with food. Prioritizing this can seem daunting, but there are several prevention strategies that parents and caregivers can practice. According to Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health (Discovery Contributor, n.d.), these tips and strategies include:
- Prepare and eat food together
- Avoid using food as a “primary reward or punishment”
- Keep consistent mealtime routines
- Replace language like “good,” “bad,” “junk,” and “unhealthy,” with language like “always foods,” “sometimes foods,” (Discovery Contributor, n.d.) and more nuanced discussions around how foods “nourish… [the] mind, body, and soul” (Baswick, 2022)
- Most importantly, modeling balanced eating habits
Baswick, J. (2022). Why You Should Stop Labelling Food As “Good” or “Bad.” The intuitive nutritionist. Retrieved from https://theintuitivenutritionist.com/why-you-should-stop-labelling-food-as-good-or-bad/
Campbell, K., & Peebles, R. (2014). Eating disorders in children and adolescents: state of the art review. Pediatrics, 134(3), 582–592. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2014-0194
Discovery Contributor. (n.d., January 5). Did my Mom Cause my Eating Disorder? Six Ways Parents Unintentionally Teach Disordered Eating to Their Children. Center for Discovery Eating Disorder Treatment. Retrieved from https://centerfordiscovery.com/blog/mom-cause-eating-disorder-six-ways-parents-unintentionally-teach-disordered-eating-children/
McCarthy, C. (2022). Eating disorders spike among children and teens: What parents should know. Harvard Health Publishing: Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/eating-disorders-spike-among-children-and-teens-what-parents-should-know-202204212731
Murray, S. B., Ganson, K. T., Chu, J., Jann, K., & Nagata, J. M. (2022). The prevalence of preadolescent eating disorders in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 70(5), 825-828. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.11.031
National Child’s Day – Nov 20, 2022. (n.d.). National Today. Retrieved from https://nationaltoday.com/national-childs-day/
Smith, K. (2021, Sep 10). Eating Disorders in Children 12 and Under: Learn the Warning Signs. Psycom. Retrieved from https://www.psycom.net/eating-disorders-in-children
Tips to Help Your Kids Develop a Healthy Relationship with Food. (n.d.) SCL Health. Retrieved from https://www.sclhealth.org/blog/2021/09/tips-to-help-your-kids-develop-a-healthy-relationship-with-food/
Watson, H.J., O’Brien, A. & Sadeh-Sharvit, S. (2018). Children of Parents with Eating Disorders. Current Psychiatry Reports 20, 101. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0970-3
By Sophia Berg
Sophia is a senior at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in psychology and management & society. She has been a research assistant with the Living F.R.E.E. Lab since May of 2022.