CHILDREN ARE SUFFERING from eating disorders at younger and younger ages according to disturbing new research.
Media consumption, peer pressure and negative messages from parents are all contributing to the problem of poor self image in children, which can trigger eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. According to the Eating Disorder Resource Centre of Ireland, children as young as five are displaying signs of poor body image – and some seven and eight year olds have developed eating disorders.
Experts are stressing that such disorders are not confined to girls, with little boys also being susceptible. Psychologist and author Deirdre Ryan told TheJournal.ie that parents can unthinkingly pass on negative messages to their children: “I was speaking with a six-year-old boy who said that he wanted to lose weight – when I asked him why he said: ‘I have a wedding coming up’. That message was more than likely passed on by a parent,” she said, “Parents have to be aware of what they are saying, even in front of boys, and not engage in ‘fat talk’. Children of this age are hypersensitive.”
Parents need to be more aware of their relationship with their own bodies as well, Ryan said: “It is starting younger and younger – but it is also affecting people who are older – spreading across the life span. Now, there is an expectation that even if you’re in your 60s you should conform to a certain image. It’s very damaging.”
Media consumption is becoming a more significant factor in influencing body image, as younger children are spending more time watching television, reading magazines and interacting on social networking sites. “Body image is something that is brought to the fore through sites like Facebook – which is almost entirely focused on aesthetics, on sharing photos and projecting an image of yourself,” she said “There are eight and nine-year-olds on Facebook with more than 100 friends – with that comes concentrated peer pressure at a very young age.”
Ryan says that parents concerned about their children’s relationship with food should watch for signs such as irritability, stressful reactions to meal times, increased discussion about weight and withdrawal, as well as more obvious signs like weight loss and increased exercising. Meal times can be a opportunity for parents to create a healthy relationship with food, she says: “These days people are spending more time eating in front of the television – but if meal times were made into a pleasant thing, it would reinforce positive associations with food.”
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