It seems that in this day and age our kids are under more pressure than ever before; although critics may argue that children and adolescents have always faced various pressures, but they change with each generation. Well before university our kids must make a life-changing decision about which career path to follow, be it academic or trade-related. Then comes the post-school world and its myriad responsibilities which many teens worry about beforehand. Couple this with peer pressure, holding down a part-time job, maintaining various relationships, achieving satisfactory grades and having little time to truly reflect and develop this transformational time of life, there is little wonder amidst the chaos that some kids get a little stressed out. While we face many similar obstacles in the adult world, we continue to place strident boundaries between our universes, increasing the pressure as well as our inability to connect and understand. But in order to truly be there for our kids, especially those facing mental and emotional struggles such as eating disorders, we must remove this barrier and open our hearts and minds to help them with this often devastating issue.
Getting to the Root of the Issue
Many of us acknowledge that the first steps to solving a problem is to identify it, and trace it back to its roots. This can be particularly difficult in the case of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and overeating, which can arise for a variety of reasons such as:
- A chemical/physical change occurring in the body which results in an effect on the individual’s mental health
- A traumatic experience such as an accident or occurrence of abuse
- A competitive environment which propels particular ideas of body image
- An overall social environment (or familial environment) where ideas of body image are pushed
- A lack of confidence in the self
- A “coping mechanism” for other issues (self-harming)
There are other factors which can contribute to eating disorders, and often, there can be more than one recurring factor at a time which contributes to this condition. Like virtually all mental illnesses, the process of analysing and treating an eating disorder can be complex and difficult, because there are no straightforward aspects of it to tackle. It is physical, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual. It isn’t just a matter of changing diet habits or even prescribing medication, but it involves a lot of soul-searching, working though personal problems and developing cognitive techniques to not only help an individual heal, but help them build problem-solving skills to ward off potential relapses in the future. Once the line of discussion has been opened, counsellors, therapists, friends, family and mentors can help those they love, whether it is through rehabilitative treatment or a more extensive, long-term therapy. Even where we feel we are being shut out, provided our child is discussing their issue with a trusted person, we must be patient and be there to support them when they are ready to reach out to us.
Helping to Heal and to Grow
This is a long-term, sometimes arduous process, but we must recognise that the science behind eating disorders is such that short-term, instant solutions are often difficult, especially if the disorder has had a long time to manifest. Some individuals suffering from eating disorders experience auditory and visual hallucinations which have a detrimental effect on the psyche, increasing feelings of inadequacy and pressure to resort to more extreme actions. It does not matter how “thin” an anorexic person may be, or how fit – when they look in the mirror, they see someone who is not fit or their ideal body shape. And in environments like highly-competitive sport, fashion, and even dance, for instance, the surrounding environment enhances it.
We cannot necessarily change the science behind eating disorders, but what we can do is create an environment which is better for our youth. This starts in the home and out into the greater society as a whole, as well as accepting that sometimes, our children need to be temporarily removed from the home environment. While also giving constructive criticism, we can acknowledge our kids’ accomplishments and let them know that we love them for who they are no matter what, and always counter a negative (“you need to exercise more/less”) with a positive. This may seem like common sense, but it is also important to take heed of the kind of dialogue we use. How do we talk about men (who also suffer extensively from eating disorders) and women and ideal body types? What kind of habits do we reinforce ourselves? What about their/our friends? The more conscientious we are about being open, accepting, and giving a gentle push when needed without forcing our own opinions and pushing for success is more likely going to lead to a more confident, healthy child who is happy to discover themselves. And by applying these values to society as a whole and seeing more and more people who are perceived (but are not) outside the norm like Tess Munster receive positive publicity (and for those who state she is promoting unhealthy habits, she works out with a trainer four times a week!), we are beginning to shape a world which is more tolerant and accepting.
It’s not going to be all rosy and simple, but breaking down the taboos of eating disorders is the key to helping those who need it the most. And as parents and friends, it could be the difference in saving someone’s life.
This is a freelance article by Gemma Dobson