Helping Prevent Eating Disorders
January 1994

“Helping Prevent Eating Disorders,” Ensign, Jan. 1994, 71–72

Helping Prevent Eating Disorders

Open a magazine, turn on the television, or listen to the radio and unrealistic images of physical thinness are drummed into our consciousness. These unrealistic messages try to say that being thin brings popularity, respect, and love; they also can contribute to eating disorders. Especially vulnerable to eating disorders are young people, particularly young women, between the ages of sixteen and thirty years old.

Two eating disorders in particular affect youth today: bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting known as purging. Anorexia nervosa involves stringent dieting and avoiding food. This condition is often accompanied by an insatiable desire to exercise. The eating habits that typify both disorders induce a state of physical and psychological deprivation and finally a loss of control.

The Causes Are Complex

Eating disorders affect young people of all types—including, but not limited to, bright, striving perfectionists from conservative, highly religious, hardworking, and responsible families. Some young people become racked with obsessions about food, have a morbid fear of weight gain, and develop feelings of guilt and failure when they find they are not in control of their behavior. They hide their eating problem from family and friends and avoid commitment, intimacy, and maturity. Loss of control about eating makes the sufferers fearful and anxious that they could lose control in other areas if they do not keep a tight rein on their emotions. Eventually the disorder consumes and dominates their life in the same way alcoholism might.

The causes of eating disorders are complex, including internalizing unrealistic expectations of thinness from media advertisements. But many cases of eating disorders may stem from a family’s lack of open expression about needs and feelings. There may be a high value placed on not expressing negative thoughts or emotions, and there could be pressure not even to have them. This can create a pressurized family situation in which the discussion of normal problems is perceived as threatening and mistakes are seen as evidence of family failure. Suppressing or denying feelings may make it difficult for a young person to distinguish between realistic and unrealistic expectations he or she may see portrayed in the media.

Ideas for Prevention

There are some subtle but positive things we can do in our families to help prevent some of the stress that can lead to eating disorders. Families can learn to be open about problems and release tensions as they arise. Parents can share their feelings appropriately and allow and encourage children to express their emotions as well. When parents help children identify their feelings, children can become comfortable with openness about problems. When feelings are expressed without catastrophic consequences, young people will learn to trust and feel better about themselves. Parents can also help their children feel comfortable with themselves and help to build their self-esteem. Children need to know that it is okay to make mistakes and that they are loved for themselves—they don’t have to think, act, or look like some “ideal” person in order to be loved.

People suffering from eating disorders often apply to others the same critical judgments they impose on themselves. As young people learn to accept their own feelings, they can learn to be more accepting of others. Parents can help by being open to communication, listening to their children’s concerns, and giving their children a wide area of choices so they can learn to trust their own independence.

For parents and for children, it is wise to learn that becoming perfect is a process. We grow from grace to grace until we receive a fulness.

When parents are open and honest about their struggles and weaknesses, children can get a realistic picture of how perfection is attained. Then they may find it easier to meet life’s challenges, separate realistic from unrealistic expectations, confide in others, and learn from their own experiences.—Dr. Val Farmer, clinical psychologist, Rapid City, South Dakota