Last weekend, I spoke at a 5th and 6th Grade retreat in Missouri. I ate dinner with the students on Friday night, and I just happened to sit down at a table of 5th and 6th grade girls. I quickly realized that two of the girls were not eating. I made a joking comment about how the food didn’t taste that bad, but their response was they didn’t want to eat because they were dieting. An adult leader at the same table said, “What have I told you about skipping meals and being on a diet!” I quickly realized that this was not a onetime thing, this was a war.
Research from Dr. Terry Bravender, assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. and medical director of Duke Eating Disorders Program, has found that 40% of 9- and 10-year-olds claim to be on a diet for weight-loss.
In an interview with HealthDay News, Dr. Bravender said, “It’s an unfortunate trend, but we’re finding that girls are becoming concerned about body image and dieting at ages as young as 7 or 8.”
Whether you have preteen girls or boys, here are a few things to consider:
1) Examine their Circle of Influence
Many preteens that struggle with appearance or weight do so because of outside influences. Stay involved and know who your preteen is hanging out with. You may also want to monitor the media influences received by your preteen. Preteens receive a distorted view of beauty and attractiveness from media. There will always be pressure on preteens, but parents and leaders must fight to limit negative influence as much as possible.
2) Start a Conversation
You will not be able to avoid pressure and influence from negative sources, so get to talking. The best defense is a strong offense. While some conversations may be necessary on healthy habits or good hygiene, avoid using stinging comments to motivate your preteen. Many adults can trace their struggle with eating disorders or weight management back to a phrases or comments made by their parents during preteen years. Instead, start talking to your preteen about beauty and appearance in the way that Scripture describes it. Use Psalm 139:14, 1 Samuel 16:7, Proverbs 31:3, or 1 Peter 3:3-4.
3) Change Your Own Habits
When speaking to preteens, I used to refer to myself as the “chubby, bald guy.” It would usually get a laugh out of them, and I thought it showed that I was comfortable with my own body enough to joke about it. WRONG! What I was really doing was labeling myself as chubby and setting a standard of appearance and beauty that would be passed on to those preteens. If your preteen is struggling with appearance and talking about dieting, take a moment to examine your own habits that they might be observing. Spend a day journaling the times that you look in the mirror, talk about weight or appearance, comments made about the weight or appearance of yourself or others, etc. You may not realize how much thought you give to weight and appearance, but chances are your preteen has noticed.
4) Get Help
According to Dr. Bravender, eating disorders typically emerge during 2 stressful periods in life, puberty and transition from high school to college. As preteens move through puberty, you may notice them struggle with the changes happening in their body. If your preteen has become over-obsessed with weight loss or body image, do not ignore these signs. Find a counselor or nutritionist that can help your family. Do whatever you can to restore the self-image of your preteen and reverse the damaging effects.