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How to Raise an Eating Disorder-Free Child

Leading eating disorder specialist Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld explains how to recognize the signs and what to do about it.

New York, NY (Vocus) April 27, 2009 -- With the incidence of disordered eating continuing to skyrocket among girls as young as elementary school age, being a psychologically savvy parent can help significantly decrease the chances that your child will developing a clinical eating disorder, says New York City based psychologist and eating disorder specialist Dr. Stacey Rosenfeld.

"I have adult clients who ask me about how to prevent their daughters from developing problematic eating behaviors. While eating disorders have genetic components and are influenced by peer groups and media exposure, there are concrete ways parents can help at home in order to promote healthy eating and body image for their children. Kids are very smart and they pick up on their parents' relationship with their own bodies and with food," Dr. Rosenfeld explains.

Dr. Rosenfeld's advice for parents:

  • Throw out your scale and stop weighing yourself. Your child sees everything you do and seeing you weigh yourself has a significant impact on her perception of weight and body.
  • Limit her access to television, magazines, and other places where unrealistic images of how girls and women should look, are often presented.
  • Talk about foods with regard to how they can nourish her body, rather than their effects on her weight. Focus on health, not on calories, fats, or carbohydrates.
  • Encourage physical activity for the sake of health, rather than weight control.
  • Do not judge your body in front of her -- avoid saying negative things about your body and never even glance in the mirror in a critical way at yourself.
  • Focus on all of her strengths outside of her body, but make it a point to tell her how beautiful she is.

However, Dr. Rosenfeld says, even if you do all the right things at home, a problem can still surface. "What is most important is that parents need to recognize the signs and trust their instincts. Oftentimes, parents ignore early signs because they feel that this problem would be a bad reflection of their parenting and love for their child. If parents witness the signs and jump in early, they can get their child off a dangerous path. It can be a matter of life or death."

Signs of trouble:

  • A significant drop in weight, which is especially concerning as she should be gaining weight during these years.
  • Exhibiting changes in eating habits like skipping meals, cutting out certain foods from her diet, playing around with her food more at the dinner table.
  • Telling you often that ate already at a friend's or relative's house, or that she will take breakfast with her to eat at school, in order to skip meals.
  • Evidence of purging behaviors - - laxatives, diet pills, diuretics - - and there may be signs that she is vomiting after meals (i.e. she excuses herself immediately after a meal to use the bathroom or drinking excessive fluids during meals).
  • A growing focus on her appearance, weighing herself more frequently, spending more time in front of the mirror. While this is relatively normal for pre-adolescent girls, it is a matter of degree. If your daughter tells you she cannot go to school because she looks fat, it should be taken seriously.

What to do:
  • Talk to her about the physical and psychological risks associated with eating disorders: dropping below a certain weight can affect your ability to have children; using laxatives or diuretics and engaging in self-induced vomiting damages the gastro-intestinal track and teeth, and can lead to life-threatening electrolyte imbalances.
  • If you have clear evidence, approach her from a non-judgmental stance. Give evidence of her behavior and reflect on how common disordered eating is. Ask her if she is struggling with her eating and how she feels about her body. Anticipate that she will be defensive, and be sure to remain empathic.
  • Tell her that sometimes it helps to talk about eating and how we feel about our bodies and that you are available to talk anytime. If she does not seem receptive, seek professional help. If your daughter will not see a doctor, go yourself and learn how to get her into treatment and how to communicate with her about her disorder in the most effective way.

Stacey M. Rosenfeld, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City. She is also a staff psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center and the Chief Psychologist for the New York City Triathlon. She specializes in the treatment of adult eating disorders, addictions, anxiety and depression, and relationship issues, as well as sports psychology. She has appeared in the media to discuss body image and related issues on The Today Show, ABC News, WCBS Radio, Woman's Day, Life & Style, In Touch,, and many other publications. For more information visit eating disorder blog.

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