Eating disorders among children are becoming a rising issue on both sides of the weight spectrum. According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of obesity in children in the 2-19 year age range was 18.5% in 2016. This is a 4.6% increase from 2000 when the CDC reported the obesity rate as 13.9%. On the other hand, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that hospitalizations for eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia rose by 119% between 1999 and 2006. One way in which this issue can be addressed is through improved parent-child communication about healthy eating and positive body image.
A 2012 study shows that while there is an insufficient amount of data to make direct conclusions about the parental influence on childhood weight gain, parents are a contributing factor to childhood weight gain. Parents provide the primary environment for their children and shape their eating habits and diet (Tzou and Chu 2012).
Given their influence on childhood eating habits, parents must actively promote healthy eating and exercise among their children. Additionally, they must be sensitive and positive when verbally addressing weight-related issues. Dr. Sandra Hassink, the director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight, breaks down childhood into three phases: elementary, middle school, and high school. Parents are taught specific reaction strategies to efficiently help children form healthy eating habits in each of these phases.
In the elementary age, Hassink discusses the importance of actions and observations. In other words, this is considered to be a time when children observe and copy their parents. Being such, parents are taught more to practice “eating a good variety, right-sized portions, eating healthy food and not junk food, all of that gets observed.”
Hassink identifies middle school-aged children as being highly sensitive due to the numerous changes brought about by puberty. As a result, she advises parents to establish a safe, judgment-free environment, where children are encouraged to be accepting of their body types, rather than feeling the need to be compared to others or obsess over their weight. “Body image: pre-teens and teenagers,” an article posted on the Australian parenting website, Raising Children, discusses the importance for parents to teach their children about positive self-image and it also states that children with negative body image may lead to anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.
Hassink encourages parents of children who fall in the high-school phase to be informational, by discussing family history, proper diets, and exercise schedules. In any case, parents are encouraged to promote optimism and self-confidence in children, as opposed to excessively controlling their diets and having them obsess over calories.
As shown by behaviorist, Albert Bandura, children often imitate the behavior of those around them, which is why it is important for parents to be sensitive and model healthy eating behavior and positive body image. This can be achieved by emphasizing nutrition and exercise over calories, weight, and other numeric factors.
Harb, C. (2012, August 22). Child eating disorders on the rise. Retrieved October 30, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/22/health/child-eating-disorders/index.html.
Raising Children, (2017, February 2). “Body image: pre-teens and teenagers.” Retrieved November 5, 2016, from http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/body_image.html.
The State of Obesity. The State of Childhood Obesity, (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2017, from https://stateofobesity.org/childhood-obesity-trends/.
Tzou, I. and Chu, N. (2012) Parental influence on childhood obesity: A review. Health, 4, 1464-1470. doi: 10.4236/health.2012.412A211.
Wallace, C. (2016, September 12). How to Talk to Kids About their Weight. Retrieved October 30, 2017, from http://time.com/4488025/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-their-weight/.