Helping Prevent Eating Disorders

Open a magazine, turn on the television, or listen to the radio and unrealistic images of physical thinness are drummed into our consciousness. These unrealistic messages try to say that being thin brings popularity, respect, and love; they also can contribute to eating disorders. Especially vulnerable to eating disorders are young people, particularly young women, between the ages of sixteen and thirty years old.

Two eating disorders in particular affect youth today: bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting known as purging. Anorexia nervosa involves stringent dieting and avoiding food. This condition is often accompanied by an insatiable desire to exercise. The eating habits that typify both disorders induce a state of physical and psychological deprivation and finally a loss of control.

The Causes Are Complex

Eating disorders affect young people of all types—including, but not limited to, bright, striving perfectionists from conservative, highly religious, hardworking, and responsible families. Some young people become racked with obsessions about food, have a morbid fear of weight gain, and develop feelings of guilt and failure when they find they are not in control of their behavior. They hide their eating problem from family and friends and avoid commitment, intimacy, and maturity. Loss of control about eating makes the sufferers fearful and anxious that they could lose control in other areas if they do not keep a tight rein on their emotions. Eventually the disorder consumes and dominates their life in the same way alcoholism might.

The causes of eating disorders are complex, including internalizing unrealistic expectations of thinness from media advertisements. But many cases of eating disorders may stem from a family’s lack of open expression about needs and feelings. There may be a high value placed on not expressing negative thoughts or emotions, and there could be pressure not even to have them. This can create a pressurized family situation in which the discussion of normal problems is perceived as threatening and mistakes are seen as evidence of family failure. Suppressing or denying feelings may make it difficult for a young person to distinguish between realistic and unrealistic expectations he or she may see portrayed in the media.

Ideas for Prevention

There are some subtle but positive things we can do in our families to help prevent some of the stress that can lead to eating disorders. Families can learn to be open about problems and release tensions as they arise. Parents can share their feelings appropriately and allow and encourage children to express their emotions as well. When parents help children identify their feelings, children can become comfortable with openness about problems. When feelings are expressed without catastrophic consequences, young people will learn to trust and feel better about themselves. Parents can also help their children feel comfortable with themselves and help to build their self-esteem. Children need to know that it is okay to make mistakes and that they are loved for themselves—they don’t have to think, act, or look like some “ideal” person in order to be loved.

People suffering from eating disorders often apply to others the same critical judgments they impose on themselves. As young people learn to accept their own feelings, they can learn to be more accepting of others. Parents can help by being open to communication, listening to their children’s concerns, and giving their children a wide area of choices so they can learn to trust their own independence.

For parents and for children, it is wise to learn that becoming perfect is a process. We grow from grace to grace until we receive a fulness.

When parents are open and honest about their struggles and weaknesses, children can get a realistic picture of how perfection is attained. Then they may find it easier to meet life’s challenges, separate realistic from unrealistic expectations, confide in others, and learn from their own experiences.—Dr. Val Farmer, clinical psychologist, Rapid City, South Dakota

A Chapter a Day

As a mother of three young children, I have often found it difficult to take time for personal scripture study. And sometimes when our children are restless, our family scripture study has not been very rewarding.

One Sunday during a moment of quiet contemplation, I pondered these problems. Softly the answer came. If I studied at least one chapter in the scriptures daily, then at night I could review the chapter with my family.

The system is simple. First, I give a brief overview of the chapter. Next, I relate my feelings and impressions from it. Finally, I read several phrases and verses I feel are important.

Through my studying, I have gained a greater understanding of the scriptures. My husband learns from my summaries even while he wrestles with our children, and I can speak in terms my toddler understands. Our family has received many blessings from this answer to a prayer.Ronda Hinrichsen, Perry, Utah

Teaching Teens

After years as a teacher, I have formulated some ways to work with adolescents in Church teaching situations.

The most important thing I have learned is the need for seeking the Spirit as I teach. Even though most of our teenagers are familiar with the basics of the gospel, they still need help understanding how the Restoration applies to them. The warmth of the Spirit can provide that help. I have learned that if I am in tune with the Spirit, I help set the mood of the classroom.

My preparation, my use of eye contact, and my respect for class members are all important ways of establishing an atmosphere of gospel learning. When I am well prepared, the Spirit is present and can have a calming or motivating influence on the class members. I also know how much young people want to be noticed, so I make it a point to look them in the eyes. And I show respect for them by using their names when I address them.

Also, I’ve discovered that if I explain the objectives of the lesson and sincerely tell the class of the lesson’s importance, the students will be more likely to listen. When they know there is a reason for what I am teaching them, they pay attention and respond with thought.

I’ve also found several things that help me maintain the mood I have established. Making eye contact with those who begin to disturb the class is a way to curb a problem before it happens. I also like to move around the room as I teach so I can be close to those who may be more energetic—because youth generally behave more appropriately when their teacher is in close proximity. Even placing a hand on a lively class member’s shoulder can help keep an atmosphere of learning. When young people are treated with respect and trust, they will usually respond in the same spirit.

Another great truth I’ve learned is to keep the class busy reading, discussing, or acting out a situation. It’s important to use variety to keep the learning atmosphere exciting.

After each lesson, I evaluate myself and put a number from one to ten next to the lesson topic. I identify areas for improvement as well as noting ideas that worked well. Because teaching takes time and thought, I’ve found that by building on past experiences, I continue to learn to create an atmosphere of interest in and excitement about gospel topics.Debra Lacy, East Wenatchee, Washington

At Home in a New Ward

Several years ago my husband received a job promotion, and we moved from our home, family, and loving ward in California to Washington state. During the first few weeks in our new home I was often lonely and depressed. To compound the problem, we were living in a rural area, and I was temporarily without a car. I felt isolated.

One day a letter came from my former Relief Society president, Elaine Fisher. With great sensitivity she wrote that she, too, had been the new sister in several wards over the years and had always found the transition to be difficult. She had noticed that some sisters seemed to assimilate easily into a new ward. She shared some pointers with me:

  1. 1.

    Don’t wait for people sitting next to you to introduce themselves; introduce yourself first!

  2. 2.

    Tell ward members that you’re happy to be in the area and look forward to getting to know them better. A positive attitude draws people to you.

  3. 3.

    Let people gradually become aware of your talents, but don’t overwhelm them; others can feel intimidated by a multitalented person.

  4. 4.

    If you’re a person with strong opinions, soften your statements by prefacing them with “It seems to me …” and “I seem to find . …” This way people won’t shy away or get ruffled.

  5. 5.

    If the neighbors don’t say hello, bake some goodies and deliver them to your neighbors, introducing yourself and your family.

  6. 6.

    Look for someone who needs you.

  7. 7.

    Ask the Relief Society president for a visiting teaching route.

  8. 8.

    Ask the Relief Society president for the names of a few sisters who share your interests—for example, quilting, sewing, or reading. Then call them and introduce yourself.

  9. 9.

    Take advantage of this lull in your life and do some of those things you’ve never had time to do before.

  10. 10.

    Don’t forget that you are a daughter of God and have a lot to offer.

By following these suggestions, I soon became comfortable in my new ward. I will always appreciate Elaine’s thoughtfulness in helping to ease my transition.Patricia Nilssen, Maple Valley, Washington

[photos] Photography by Matthew Reier

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dave McDonald

[photo] Photography by Matthew Reier; photo electronically composed by Neil Brown