Preventing Eating Disorders In Children

National Eating Disorders Awareness week is Feb 20th – 26th.  Unfortunately, eating disorders and body image issues can be found amongst all ages.  One of the questions that I often ask children during my initial therapy assessment is “Do you think you need to lose or gain weight?”  The amount of children who say yes is astounding, and those that say yes usually state they feel overweight or need to diet, even if they appear an average weight.

Certainly, obesity, over-eating, and unhealthy eating are concerns especially in the United States…however, just as much attention must be given to concerns regarding how children are learning to view their bodies to prevent the “under” side of eating disorders and body image issues.  The American Academy of Pediatrics published an article in December 2010 indicating that the rate of eating disorders among children 12 years old and younger has dramatically increased since 1999.  Specifically, there is an increase in dieting and worries about gaining weight, to the dangerous extreme of hospitalization due to excessive weight loss.  An older study found that 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991).  The most well known eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (starvation and weight loss) and bulimia nervosa (binging and purging).  Body dysmorphic disorder is often associated with eating disorders and refers to being preoccupied or obsessed over a perceived bodily defect, eg. focus on one’s weight despite a low BMI.

With this awareness, what proactive preventative steps can parents take to help instill a healthy body image for their child?

1)      Contribute to your child’s self-esteem by focusing on and complimenting positive internal qualities and success rather than external appearance.

2)      Have open discussions about how body image is portrayed by the media.  One study found that most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women (Smolak, 1996).

3)      Be mindful of your own body image and how you portray your feelings about your body (verbally or even through your body language, such as avoidance of being photographed).     Another study found that 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992).

4)      Be mindful of stereotypes or prejudices you may unconsciously have and express regarding others’ weight, whether it be comments about family/friends or interactions with people in public.

5)      If you notice concerns regarding your child’s eating habits, talk to your pediatrician or other professional if needed.  Eating disorders and body image issues can also be related to other underlying causes that need to be evaluated, ruled out, or addressed by a professional.

Gustafson-Larson, A.M., & Terry, R.D. (1992). Weight-related behaviors and concerns of fourth-grade children. Journal of American Dietetic Association, 818-822.

Mellin, L., McNutt, S., Hu, Y., Schreiber, G.B., Crawford, P., & Obarzanek, E. (1991). A longitudinal study of the dietary practices of black and white girls 9 and 10 years old at enrollment: The NHLBI growth and health study. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27-37.

National Eating Disorders Association Statistics: Eating Disorders and Their Precursors.  2005.  Retrieved January 19, 2011 from Information and Referral Helpline: 1-800-931-2237.

Schwartz, Allan. (January 4, 2011).  A Major Crisis, Eating Disorders and Children.  Retrieved January 19, 2011 from

Smolak, L. (1996). National Eating Disorders Association/Next Door Neighbors Puppet Guide Book.



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About Kimberly Rodgers, LCSW, RPT-S

Kimberly is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the state of Florida and Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor through the Association for Play Therapy. She also supervises clinical social work interns pursuing licensure. She has worked as a psychotherapist for twelve years and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Georgia and Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of Central Florida.

Her experience includes foster care, adoption, youth shelter, youth related research, school-based counseling, and sexual assault crisis center settings prior to private practice. She specializes in counseling children, families, and adults struggling with stress, anxiety, trauma, and adjustment to life transitions. Kimberly is a current Board member of the Mental Health Association of Southwest Florida and former Vice-President of the Southwest Florida chapter of the Association for Play Therapy. She is also a member of the National Association of Social Workers and EMDR International Association.

Kimberly is founder of Monarch Wellness (originally Monarch Therapy), an integrative center focused on empowering individuals and families through emotional and behavioral metamorphosis. In addition to counseling and play therapy, the center offers other supportive modalities to further enhance emotional healing and stress management including support groups, yoga, laughter yoga, breathwork, integrative relaxation, and sound therapy. Monarch Wellness' sister site offers health related information and inspiration for everyday families to live healthier every day. The center is also involved with House of Gaia community center and other community and service focused organizations. More information about Kimberly and her practice can be found online:

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