Apr 09, 2014 | Comments Off on Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating: All About Bulimia 494
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, approximately a half million teenagers struggle with eating disorders or unhealthy eating patterns. The Archives of General Psychiatry states that nearly one in 60 adolescents qualifies for a diagnosis of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Ninety percent of young women who develop an eating disorder are between 12 and 15 years old and one-half of 4th grade girls are on a diet.
Clearly, many young girls are in trouble with their eating, bodies, and self-esteem. Let’s explore: Why do girls develop eating disorders? What can parents do? When can professional help be beneficial?
Why Girls Develop Eating Disorders
Although many people believe that our culture’s worship of skinny models and actresses is responsible for causing eating disorders, this only has a limited influence. Comparing themselves to skinny models may contribute somewhat to girls feeling inadequate, but the truth is that girls are prone to eating problems when their basic self confidence is shaky and they feel insecure.
Adolescents—both girls and boys—face weighty emotional and social challenges at this stage of development: separating from their parents; finding a supportive group of friends; figuring out who they really are and what they want to do with their lives. These are critical and anxiety provoking transitions.
The New York Times article, “Why Teenagers Act Crazy,” explains that teens are uniquely vulnerable to anxiety because of the way their brains develop during adolescence. The part of the brain that will eventually help them develop calm reasoning matures only later, after a biological upsurge of anxiety and fear. Therefore, although teens are grown-up in some ways, they are still dependent on the comforting of their parents. Here is an example of how Mrs. H. helped her worried and upset daughter: “Yes, you do have a pimple on your nose, but I will put on a little makeup for you, and we will make it fade away. You believe that pimple is the only thing that people will see but it is so small compared to what a wonderful, lovely girl you are.” The girl with good self-esteem—let’s call her Rosie—will be comforted by her mother and will feel reassured (even if she huffs off to her room and slams the door).
A girl who is insecure, like Sharon, will not feel reassured but, instead, will continue to obsess about the pimple or another body part that doesn’t measure up to her standards.
How come Rosie can calm down and Sharon cannot? How come Rosie eats normally and Sharon is a binge eater? (All names are changed for confidentiality). The key is self-confidence.
What Parents Can Do To Build Self-Esteem
Teens turn to eating disorders as coping mechanisms, as “solutions” to deal with what makes them anxious. The key ingredient to prevent eating disorders is by building a child’s self-esteem. Parents and kids need to talk openly about feelings, problems, emotions, disagreements, and have everyone listen respectfully to the opinions of the other family members. In psychotherapy we call this type of supportive talking and listening “empathic attunement.”
Which Is an Example of Empathic Attunement?
Mrs. C: “You shouldn’t feel disappointed. When I was growing up, my parents never gave me half of what we give you.
Mrs. D: “I understand that you are feeling deprived and mad that we can’t afford to send you on that trip. I’m sorry. I know this is tough.”
Mr. A: “If your sister can lose weight, so can you. Just try harder.”
Mr. B: “I know you feel bad that your sister is losing weight, but everyone’s different. Why don’t we do something special on Shabbat and go for a walk together? Then we can have time to chat about how things are going for you.”
Mrs. E: “So your father and I yell and fight sometimes? I had it much worse than you with my parents. You’ll get over it. Don’t be so sensitive.”
Mrs. F: “I know it’s scary when Daddy and I fight. I wish we could talk about things more calmly. We are trying to work things out. Just know that we always love you even when we are having a hard time with each other.”
(Of course, the second example in each case is the right response.)
There are a host of reasons for childhood and adolescent eating disorders ranging from biological issues to psychological vulnerability to anxiety and depression. But parents can play a strong role in preventing eating disorders by “inoculating” their children’s self-esteem. When parents empathize with their children, kids feel understood. Talking and listening to a child’s feelings encourages her to express herself directly without the need for the soothing—but temporary—comfort of an eating disorder.