y 12-year-old daughter is worried about being fat (even though she isn’t). She cries about this almost every day and I try to comfort her to no avail. She seems preoccupied with how she looks and how much she weighs. She sometimes refuses to eat because she doesn’t want to get fat, then other times, she eats far more than the rest of us. Aside from it being hard to watch my child suffer, this is causing a problem for the rest of the family. Meal times are not fun in our house. When school starts, I will talk to the school counsellor, but I was hoping you would have some suggestions for us in the meantime.
I commend you for reaching out for support and information and thank you for sharing your experience. Your daughter sounds like she is struggling with her body image and adopting some abnormal eating behaviours as a way to cope. Watching someone you love go through this is difficult and can be stressful for the family. Sadly, there are many parents, families, and children facing these same challenges.
Social pressure to be thin affects everyone in one way or another and with social media sending these messages by the minute, it requires superhuman strength to avoid its effect. Even increased health consciousness in our society and a focus on low‐fat can place pressure on kids. It is no wonder children are more conscious of their bodies and afraid of being fat.
Teenage girls are the population most diagnosed with an eating disorder (this doesn’t preclude young males, however, as the rates of disordered eating and poor body image rise due to increased societal pressures on men to look a certain way). Dissatisfaction with their bodies may begin around puberty as they become more aware of their appearance and peer approval becomes paramount.
From severely restricting calories and overeating to binging and purging, or obsessions with avoiding “unhealthy” foods, disordered eating comes in many packages and can have the same negative effect on health.
For parents, it is important to educate yourself about eating disorders and body image for teens so you can spot the warning signs and seek support if necessary. The challenge is in managing your fear for the child’s health while providing a supportive and non‐judgmental relationship.
Take care in the manner you speak to your daughter about this issue. You are likely to be more successful if you keep your fear under wraps and avoid statements such as “You just need to eat.” Instead, try using an “I” statement such as “I am concerned about you because you aren’t eating.”
Your daughter will likely benefit from some extra relationship building at this time. Make sure to spend time talking about things that are important to her (not just about food and bodies). Pay attention to your own (and your family’s) beliefs and discourse on exercise, weight, and food.
Talk of negative feelings towards yourself, and talk related to disordered eating (i.e. I deserve this dessert because I exercised today), may have a powerful influence on your daughter’s attitude towards her body and relationship with food. Conversely, making the switch to a focus on strengths and behaviors related to health (versus weight loss) may provide the tools needed to navigate media messages of physical perfection.
Feelings of helplessness can overwhelm a parent of a child struggling with these issues. The good news is there are many helping professionals in our community and schools that can provide support, guidance, and strategies that will help both child and parent move forward. In addition to this, there are some fabulous websites that offer resources to parents, schools, and coaches (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org; www.nedic.ca ‐National Eating Disorder Information Center).
To ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead, Sara-Lynn Kang and Carolyn Howard at Pacific Therapy & Consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.