As they approach puberty, children become aware of, and sometimes concerned about, their appearance. Your son may ask you to feel his biceps. Your daughter will gaze at herself in the mirror, checking out her changing shape.
Preteens, particularly girls, begin to compare their looks with those of the people they see in movies, on TV, and in magazines. It's an unfair comparison. Early adolescence is a time of voracious eating and rapid growth. It's common for girls and boys approaching puberty to look chubby. Then after a growth spurt, they may not be used to their new height so they will slouch awkwardly for a while.
Girls as young as six can fret about their figures. But typically they begin to worry about their weight between the ages of nine and eleven. By age eleven, 37 per cent of Canadian girls say they would change how they look if they could, and 21 per cent say they need to lose weight.
Along with adults, children at this age may buy into the myth that you can have any body you want -- if only you exercise and control your eating. But body size is not a choice. Increasing evidence suggests that weight is genetic.
Size is inherited
Some children are naturally small, others naturally large. Large kids do not necessarily eat more than their smaller counterparts. There's increasing evidence that we have an inherited set-point, a certain weight that is genetically determined. Like hair colour and height, size is part of our inheritance.
If your child is excessively overweight, of course you should consult your family doctor. With the help of a dietitian, you need to examine if his diet is too high in fats or calories. Also worth looking at is whether he takes opportunities to exercise. If you're secure that your child is physically active and that his diet is good, relax. There is no evidence that being plump is unhealthy, although being too skinny does have definite health risks.
Problems for the larger-than-average child originate in how he is treated by our fat-phobic society. Studies show that children consider a "fat" child the least desirable playmate. Children describe heavy people as dirty, ugly, and stupid.
To try to spare your child this ridicule, you may become critical of your child's weight or eating. You may even be repulsed by the extra roll around your son's middle. But if you don't feel comfortable with child's body shape, it could be time to look at your own thinking about body shape.
In a society that equates fat with bad and skinny with good, we need to remind ourselves that thin children are no more lovable than large kids. In fact, your love and acceptance may be even more essential for the over-weight child, who may be taunted at school. If you overhear your child being called "fatty" or "porker," you may want to act out of anger. But a more constructive approach is to state simply, "We don't make fun of the way people look."
Say no to dieting
Don't put your child on a diet. You risk her developing an eating disorder, since many begin with seesaw dieting. The majority of people who lose weight through dieting regain the weight they lost plus a few pounds.
Putting a child on a diet could set him up to fail. When you restrict his food, he may feel deprived and experience an increased interest in having those foods that are considered taboo. Then he may seek to satisfy his hunger by sneaking a bag of chips or, more likely, half the contents of your fridge. With that, he may feel ashamed and out of control, although this scenario is not always inevitable.
As a parent or caregiver, your job is to prepare nutritious snacks and meals. It's your child's job to choose what and how much she wants to eat. Fighting about food usually leads to eating more. Denying particular foods only makes them more appealing. If your child isn't allowed ice cream, she may crave it!
Can we change our weight? Dieting may adjust our metabolic requirements in the wrong direction. It pushes them down. The only way we can increase our energy requirements is through regular aerobic exercise.
Aerobic exercise refers to the continuous movement that makes the heart beat faster, but not to the point where you're puffing. During aerobic excercise, you should still be able to speak comfortably. To reap the most benefit from aerobic exercise, maintain the activity for at least twenty continuous minutes. It's best not to single out your overweight child by insisting, "You need to exercise." Chances are that your whole family needs to exercise. Make fitness a family goal.
The beginnings of anorexia nervosa
Eating disorders tend to appear when a person is facing several changes once. One such time is early adolescence, when a child faces a changing body, emerging sexual feelings, and is likely graduating to a senior school. Life may seem out of control. Food may seem like the one thing your child can control.
Anorexia nervosa, a drastic weight loss from dieting, is a predominantly female disorder. It doesn't usually develop until between ages thirteen and twenty-five. However, symptoms of anorexia can begin as young as age nine.
Anorexia may start with the child establishing a strict rule of no desserts. Then she may also exclude bread from her diet. She could go on to deny herself more and more foods until she's existing on only celery sticks and water, or just water.
Maybe your child has turned vegetarian. If she is unwilling to eat higher-fat vegetarian foods such as nuts, seeds, tofu, and legumes, her preference may be masking the beginnings of an eating disorder, especially if her new way of eating is accompanied by weight fluctuations and a preoccupation with her weight or shape.
Behind this potentially fatal illness is a strong desire to be thin, even though the child may be thin to begin with. However, some children who become anorexic were heavy, were ostracized because of their weight, were encouraged to diet and praised when they lost pounds.
Seeing a child struggle with an eating disorder might make you feel helpless. You can best help her by keeping communication flowing, but do talk about things other than food and weight. Avoid power struggles over food. What your child needs most is to know that you care about her. As a family member, not a therapist, express concern about her health and seek help from your family doctor or an eating-disorder clinic. Don't wait until you can persuade her to seek help. Anorexics believe their only problem is being too fat.