Strong and Healthy, Inside and Out

As a parent, reality is sometimes tough to handle. Bullying about body size can affect any child, from the small, skinny kid with long legs and knobby knees to the pre-pubescent girl developing curves and gaining weight around her middle. Despite efforts to curb it, cyberbullying is still very much a threat to kids and a point of concern for local parents. 

58 percent of kids admit someone has bullied them online. A recent study showed that 24 percent of boys and 30 percent of sixth grade girls experienced daily teasing, bullying or rejection because of their size. For overweight children in high school, the numbers double. More than 50 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls are bullied about their body weight and appearance. 

While there is no proof that bullying alone causes eating disorders, it is hard to deny kids feel incredible amounts of pressure to look a certain way. The cultural expectation to look thin and perfect as well as emotional disorders like depression and obsessive compulsive behavior are all factors involved in the cause of eating disorders. What is even more disturbing is, statistics show these disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Experts in the field of adolescent development and eating disorders say weight is only a small part of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating. In addition, substance abuse is often mixed in with anorexia nervosa. It is estimated that up to 50 percent of individuals with an eating disorder also abuse alcohol or drugs. 

Tyler, 14, is a quiet, intelligent boy who attends a local high school. He says he was bullied for being too skinny in middle school. “Kids used to say things like ‘you are so anorexic’ because I am so skinny and scrawny. At first, it made me feel really bad, and like nobody would like me because I was a twig. I tried eating a lot and working out, but nothing really happened. Then, I realized it is just my body type. I just lived with it for the rest of middle school,” he says. “Now that I am in high school, I am still very self-conscious about the way my body looks. Even in summer, I wear long sleeves to cover up my arms.” Despite his struggles, Tyler is lucky. He has not developed an eating disorder and maintains a healthy, active lifestyle, enjoying nutritionally dense foods and participating in sports. This is not always the case for kids who have been teased.

Eating disorders are notoriously hard to treat. The onset of eating disorders occurs during pre-adolescence or adolescence, a time when many young adults are in the midst of rapidly changing bodies and emotional growth. Because 95 percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25, experts say it is imperative to identify, diagnose and treat them as early as possible.

Susan found out her son, who is now 19, had an eating disorder when he was in eighth grade at a Frisco middle school. “He was in treatment for depression and the therapist was the first to let me know. In elementary school, he was a husky kid, but I never really considered him overweight. He had been in the ninety-fifth percentile for everything since birth. He was a stocky, football player type,” she says. “What I did not know was that kids had been teasing him about his size. Toward fifth grade, he really started to slim down. I thought this was due to maturity and puberty. I found out later he had been restricting his food intake and throwing up some of his food.” This mom says she sought help at a facility that offered specialized treatment for eating disorders. “They had therapists, dietitians and group therapy. The problem was, he was a boy. The groups and most of the clients were girls. He did some meal sessions and met with a nutritionist a few times, but there were not any groups for boys. The therapy focused on overall mental health. I had high hopes, but progress was minimal. Other addictive behaviors were also present. He drank, used marijuana and did some self-harm to cope with depression.” Susan says his overall health and growth as an adolescent has suffered and she and her son are still looking for effective treatment. “Sadly,” she says, “he has still not recovered.”

Brenda Berry, the director of guidance and counseling for the Frisco ISD, says turning to the district for help as a parent of a child with an eating disorder is a good place to start. “We encourage parents to reach out to us any time they feel their child is having a problem. Our FISD counselors, student assistance coordinators and Southern Methodist University counseling interns are available to support parents, answer their questions and direct them to further resources, as necessary. In addition, all secondary schools have a full-time school resource officer who works closely with school counselors and nurses to ensure the safety of students.”

Ms. Berry says the FISD works to address problems before they arise. “All of our counselors are trained to support parents and help them find resources to address mental health issues and other safety concerns,” she says. In addition, the FISD has a committee in each school, the Whole Child Committee, which works to make policy recommendations and advancements on health-related issues. Working in conjunction with the Student Health Advisory Council, the committee focuses on increasing health and nutrition knowledge, increasing positive health behaviors and improving the social, emotional, counseling and psychological services and climate. 

While experts agree, eating disorders are not, in general, hereditary, emotional disorders can be genetic. Whether or not these diseases run in your family, there are things parents can do to help their children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. As with anything else, children grow best when they feel accepted and safe. Children associate food with good, positive feelings when family meals are enjoyed together and when parents promote healthy, nutrition-filled food choices. Experts also advise parents to check their own weight bias at the door. Parents need to understand how they feel about their own weight, when it is up or down, should not affect how they relate to children about their bodies. Emphasizing strength over thinness is a great example. Promote size acceptance. Remind kids all bodies are shaped differently and differences should be welcomed, not feared. 

Harper, a 13-year-old who lives in Frisco, is a middle school student about to enter eighth grade. She says there is an enormous amount of pressure on teens to have perfect-looking bodies, especially when it comes to social media. “You cannot post a picture of your body unless it looks good,” she says. “You have to create the illusion that you are skinnier than you are, or that you have a thigh gap or perfectly toned legs. A normal teen does not have those things, but that is the ideal look.” She admits social media puts pressure on her, but she hesitates to give it up. Snapchat and Instagram are popular online social platforms that have become an important part of her life. “It is annoying how you cannot be comfortable with your own body because it is not good enough for social media standards,” she says. 

For parents, it can be difficult to know where to start when seeking help or guidance on this type of issue. Everyone wants what is best for their kids. If you feel like your child needs help, do not hesitate to reach out and acquire the essential care they need to grow into healthy young adults.

Lisa Dawson is a full-time working mom of three, a freelance writer and a Frisco resident.