According to the International Journal of Eating Disorders, almost 50 percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 8 years old want to be thinner. If this statistic isn’t startling enough, many children are showing signs of disordered eating or irregularities in eating behavior before they reach age 13.

Though many photos in magazines are retouched or airbrushed, the unrealistic images of beauty featured in the media as well as dangerously thin fashion models and celebrities who spend hours with stylists and trainers in order to look “perfect” often spur problematic behavior about one’s body.  These false and superficial images reinforce the myth of body perfection, which can negatively affect a child’s sense of self and lead to a poor body image and low self-esteem. In the worst case scenario, children, teens and young adults can develop eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating and compulsive overeating, while trying to reach an impossible ideal.

In this media-centric world, it is crucial that parents guide children, of all ages and both sexes, to understand the reality of the images kids see. As a parent, there are several things you can do to empower your child to form a healthy sense of self and a positive body image. By doing so, you help your child to become more grounded, less likely to succumb to peer pressure and less prone to develop behaviors linked with eating disorders.

Some of the actions you can take to build your child’s positive body image include:

  • Discussing with your children the unrealistic and stereotypical images of beauty and perfection that kids are exposed to by the media.
  • Encouraging and praising your children when they show signs of a healthy body image.
  • Refraining from negatively critiquing your own body in front of your children. This can be especially hard for parents who are dieting, but children will never believe praise about how beautiful they look or how great they are “just the way they are,” if you describe yourself negatively in front of them.
  • Discouraging teasing about body and appearance. Explain to your children that  people should not poke fun at other family members, children at school, celebrities or individuals in the media, especially when it comes to the person’s physical appearance.
  • Engaging in healthy eating habits as a family.
  • Explaining why eating nutritious foods are important to a person’s overall wellness.

As a parent, you should be aware of signs and behaviors of disordered eating. Although the mental and physical symptoms vary, below are some common indicators that may lead to or may have already led to an eating disorder:

  • History of being teased by others based on appearance.
  • Difficulty expressing emotions.
  • Depression and/or anxiety.
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy, loneliness or anger.

If you are concerned that your child may be showing signs of an eating disorder, get help as early as possible. Diagnosis and treatment at an early stage result in a more healthy and positive recovery process. If you are unsure that your child is exhibiting behaviors of an eating disorder, contact an eating disorders treatment center to speak with a professional. Remember: It is nothing to be ashamed about— what is important is to get your questions answered and to take the necessary steps to get your child help, if needed.

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