By: Dianna Chillo-Havercamp
I have been practicing psychotherapy for close to 18 years now. In this time, I’ve focused most of my work on the treatment of eating disorders. Having suffered with an eating disorder in high school, prevention, education, and treatment have become my passion.
In 2014, after a series of health and emotional struggles, I relapsed in my eating disorder. It’s taken me some time, but with a history of recovery, direct practice with clients, a great treatment team, and unbelievable support, I’ve managed to get to a much better place. As a result, my view on self-acceptance, recovery, treatment, and educating others has shifted and become even stronger.
I have a daughter who is about to turn 10 in a few months. Between the work I do with young clients and having my own child, seeing the pressures in the culture we live in today truly scares me. Early adolescence is a time of physical and emotional changes, as well as the beginning of many difficult transitions. Bullying is also on the rise, especially in the age of social media.
I believe that the first step in educating our children and fostering a positive sense of self and body image begins in the home. I encourage parents to first assess their own views of themselves and thoughts on their own body image. It’s important to recognize the language that we use around food, weight, and appearance. In my practice, as well as in my personal life, I find it helpful to focus on the function of our bodies and how food is a source of energy and strength, not only of our physical self, but of our emotional selves.
One example is to ask your child/children what they like about their body and why. One exercise I’ve done with my daughter—and in my practice with people of all ages—is to first ask what your child likes about their face, legs, arms, and middle section. Then go on to ask them the function of each part. I asked my daughter this question, and she said, “I like my arms because they are long and they connect to my hands, and my hands help me hold markers so I can color.”
I often ask my daughter and clients what characters they like or don’t like in the shows they watch and why. We begin a dialogue around personality traits outside of just their appearance, if that is one of the things they are drawn to. Asking children who their role models are opens up conversation, not just about body image or acceptance, but gives insight into what they view as important. Knowing this can help challenge misconceptions or reinforce what they view as valuable traits.
Discussions about "healthy" nutrition as well as regular physical activity is important. I think it’s important not to label food as good or bad; rather, let them know that certain choices are better for growing, strength, and concentration. I talk to my daughter about growing tall and strong, doing well in her math class, and how balanced nutrition can help her achieve her goals. I use tall and strong with her, because that’s what she values at this stage, as well as running faster than all of the boys in her class.
It’s also vital that decision-making and stress management skills are properly modeled and encouraged. Children’s concerns and the struggles they face need to be heard and validated, not only in the home, but in their schools. Many schools are beginning to offer life skills, stress management, and self-esteem programs, which are incredibly helpful in building self-assurance.