The New Parenting Dilemma: Can Kids ‘Transmit’ Eating Disorders To One Another?
When a new study described anorexia nervosa as “socially transmitted,” the terminology raised some eyebrows. Although the disease often hints at more troubling dilemmas than simply a desire to be skinny, the idea of kids swapping distorted body image like last year’s cold is enough to keep any parent up at night. However, child therapist Brenna Hicks tells us that it’s not that simple.
She notes that eating disorders in children tend to manifest with a refusal to eat and “extreme pickiness.” But anyone who has ever tried to feed a toddler knows that a picky tendency over colors and texture is a common battle that sometimes wanes with time. However, Hicks informs me that for some children, this pattern of eating can become more severe with a dangerously low count of calorie consumption or even purging. She describes this occurrence as “more common” now due to an increase in children’s stress and a decrease in self-esteem.
Anxious children, she tells me, are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders to cope with their stress. However, suggesting that eating disorders or negative body image can be “transmitted” muddies the important issue of how our culture consistently equates pretty with thinness — which carries considerably more power than just peer pressure.
“I don’t prefer the term, as the implication of “transmitted” is that it is contagious,” Hicks says. “The reality is that children are seeking role models and people from whom they will pattern their behaviors. As our society becomes more focused on being thin, regardless of emotional, psychological or physical cost, children are beginning to adopt the same thoughts and enact the same behaviors.”
Evading pressures to be dangerously thin from friends is one obstacle course children may confront in the schoolyard. But keeping kids away from messages like that of Jessica Simpson, who touted her personal dismissal of eating disorders as a branding decision rather than a healthful choice, is more the challenge that should concern modern parents. As are the torrent of other lady magazines and 24/7 media that praise being tiny over being healthy.
“Parents need to be the counter-balance to the pressure that children receive from the media, peers, and society,” she advises. “Being aware of the importance a parents plays in teaching children to love themselves and respect their bodies goes a long way.”
She confirms that our cultural hypersexualization of girls at young ages can condition many into believing that achieving societal beauty — which is currently quite thin — is paramount. However, parents can combat this by assuring girls that their self-value and worth is not founded entirely in their appearance.
Hicks adds that in her professional opinion, children who have very anxious temperaments are more likely to develop eating disorders anyway –regardless of the kind of company that they keep. She describes eating disorders and anxiety disorders as having “common roots,” despite not be “officially categorized together.”
“Children who are subjected to stress, whether environmental, psychological, self-imposed or others, can begin to cope with their situation by taking power over their eating habits, something which they can control amongst feeling very out of control elsewhere. I believe this type of child is more susceptible regardless of exposure to others.”
She advises concerned parents to keep an eye out for a sudden weight loss, a change in eating patterns, “excessive” time in the bathroom, obsessions with exercise, as well as a refusal to eat in front of others.
“All of these can be early indicators that a child is struggling and needs parental time and attention. Additionally, approaching such a subject should be done with love, compassion, support and respect.”