Expert Answers: Eating disorder fears over girl of 11

“My daughter is 11-years-old and is already very conscious of her body image. She thinks she’s overweight because she’s a bit more rounded than some of her friends but she’s actually quite slim. I am terrified she is going to develop an eating disorder.”

NEW research has revealed that nearly half of 11-year-old girls are worried about weight gain.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, looked at more than 2,000 young people at the ages of 11, 13 and 15 who were living in and around Glasgow.

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It found that one in four girls are on a diet by the age of 15. Researchers found that the teenagers were concerned about their size and wanted to shed pounds despite being of average weight.

The study revealed by the age of 15, 26 per cent of medium weight and eight per cent of low-weight girls said they were dieting compared with just below three per cent of medium-to-low weight boys.

The youngsters were asked if they were worried about putting on weight and whether they were dieting to become slimmer.

The researchers also calculated their body mass index (BMI) to see if the youngsters were the right weight for their height.

The steepest variations between the heaviest and lightest were seen in girls, with the widest gap appearing at the age of 15.

Overall, the prevalence of “overweight” went up from 16 per cent at the age of 11 to 17 per cent by the age of 15.

Worries about putting on weight and dieting were closely linked to BMI for both genders, but girls were much more concerned than boys.

At each age, girls in the medium to low weight bracket were significantly more likely to be dieting than boys.

The proportion of boys worried about weight gain fell steadily from 30 per cent at the age of 11 to 23 per cent by the age of 15.

The researchers found the decline in boys’ concerns and the sharp increase in the girls’ worries about weight gain as they grew older had nothing to do with their actual BMI.

Among overweight boys, 30 per cent said they were dieting at the age of 11, but this had almost halved to 16 per cent among 15-year-olds.

The same proportion of overweight girls were dieting at the age of 11, but by the age of 15, almost one in two was on a diet.

The authors, led by Dr Helen Sweeting of Glasgow University, concluded that the physical changes of puberty have a much faster and more profound effect on young women.

They say their findings “highlight the fine line that both media and health promotion messages about an appropriate weight for height need to tread among this particularly vulnerable age group.”

HOW ROLE MODEL CAN HELP

* Be a healthy role model for your child by avoiding making comments on your own body size or others.

* Promote a healthy balanced diet which includes eating fruit and vegetables – try not to refer to “good food” or “bad food” as most things are fine to eat in moderation.

* Start casual conversations with your child to find out their thoughts on body image and any insecurities they may have about themselves.

* Praise their strengths and talents to help boost their self-esteem and make sure they know that you love them no matter what.

* www.familylives.org.uk

Paul Charlson

GP from Brough

IT is important not to ignore any change in your daughter’s eating habits, especially if you become aware of other behaviour changes too. Contact your GP or perhaps a school nurse for advice if you feel a problem is developing. Children shouldn’t be worrying about how they look; we want to protect them and can feel concerned when they get upset about their bodies and are conscious of how they are perceived by their peers. She needs to learn to have a positive body image and be happy with however she looks. To help her with this, you could tell her the ways you value her and the things you feel proud of that has nothing to do with her body, for example, praise her schoolwork or good behaviour. Try to make it a habit, as a family, to talk about people’s attributes apart from their looks; this will help her to see that personal value is not dependant on appearance.

Elaine Douglas

A chartered psychologist who specialises in family and child relationships

ELEVEN years of age does seem to be young to be worrying about weight, but it isn’t unusual these days for (particularly girls) to be body conscious. I’m afraid it’s the usual suspects of the media world that girls want to aspire to be like – so their heroines are models and celebrities that are quite often, some would say, unnaturally thin. I’m afraid all of that isn’t going to change radically in the near future, so I think you need to educate your daughter about healthy eating and what that actually means. Her body will be going through hormonal changes at the moment, which is probably why she is developing what is in effect a more “womanly” shape. However, this won’t mean anything to her at the moment and telling her that it will settle down “in time” won’t work – she wants changes now. She may have done some of this at school, but I don’t think it would do any harm for you and your daughter to find out about the categories of foods eg carbohydrates, fats, proteins etc and about vitamins and minerals.

Cary Cooper

PROFESSOR of organisational psychology and health at lancaster university

I AM not a child psychologist or a nutritionalist, but as a father of three daughters, I have had this with all three. I would begin to be more concerned if you find her regularly engaged in self-induced vomiting or other extreme forms of weight loss. Then I would consult a clinical or trained counselling psychologist, who specialises in eating disorders, through your GP practice.

I suspect that this body consciousness is going down the age range because of the large number of multi-media images of young women.

I would also ask your other daughters to talk to her because she might take it better from them than you. Be vigilant but calm, and discuss with her husband/partner and other children if you see any change of behaviour that worries you.

Dr Carol Burniston

CONSULTANT Clinical ChILD PSYCHOLOGIST

IN Child and Adolescent Mental Health services, we are aware of girls as young as nine who are body conscious. It seems to be an awareness brought about by the image promotion in the media and campaigns designed to help people towards healthy lifestyles. Attitudes in the family are very important too and you need to be aware of the messages you convey to her unintentionally, such as expressing concern about your own weight or diet. An eating disorder however is a more complex phenomenon and is unlikely to take hold at this age. You can help by ensuring that you know your daughter’s BMI (Body Mass Index) and being able to reassure her that this is within the healthy range of 20-25. Emphasise the value of fitness rather than thinness and encourage exercise over stringent diets. Young people who develop eating disorders do restrict their diet but also use vomiting and/or laxatives and tend to take strict control over other aspects of their lives and relationships. If your daughter hears positive messages about herself and her appearance, she is unlikely to experience this as more than a passing phase of increased awareness.