Nourishing our Kids’ Body Image & Mental Health | The Kennedy Forum

Nourishing our Kids’ Body Image & Mental Health
January 18, 2023

Perhaps one of the biggest mental health challenges for kids and adolescents is the pressure of the “ideal” body weight. With a new year comes a renewed surge in extreme dieting and weight loss practices. The holidays – with all of their food and festivities – can be a difficult time for those actively navigating or recovering from anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and other types of disordered eating followed by the pressures of setting new year’s weight loss goals. 

Johns Hopkins reports that 30 million people in the United States struggle with disordered eating or body image issues. Of them, 95% are between the ages of 12 and 25 years old. This prevalence is even higher amongst women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and athletes. 

Whether you’re a parent or a caretaker, it’s always difficult to see your child struggle with something larger than themselves. We want the best for our kids; seeing them consumed by the pain and anxiety of disordered eating can be heartbreaking. While understanding and seeking treatment for a child’s life-threatening eating disorder can be overwhelming, know that you are not alone. 

The new year is a time for reflection and while the pressures of the new year are not always in our control, we can teach our kids new perspectives that allow them to prioritize their health and wellbeing. Here are a few simple do’s and don’ts that you can start to incorporate with your children and loved ones: 

  • DON’T categorize foods as good/bad, healthy/unhealthy
  • DON’T set goals around sizes or weight 
  • DON’T celebrate thinness or weight loss 
  • DO encourage trying new hobbies and activities 
  • DO be intentional about gratitude 
  • DO set intentions around self-care and wellness

For parents and caregivers who are looking for more resources, organizations like The National Eating Disorder Association, The Emily Program, National Alliance for Eating Disorders, and Equip provide learning materials, toolkits for parents, answers to frequently asked questions, treatment information, and more. 

In addition to organizations who provide resources, we know that schools are where our kids spend the majority of the time. School- and community-based resources can make an enormous difference in educating on and preventing eating disorders among our children. 

Eating disorders have the 2nd highest mortality rate of all clinical mental health diagnoses, proving that highly-trained care for our children is critical to saving lives. A new poll released by Effective School Solutions found that  90% of school administrators believe that the youth mental health crisis is worsening. And yet, 40% of parents and 50% of educators are worried that schools don’t have enough staff to address students’ needs, including their mental health. Right now, schools are unable to properly screen and educate students, leaving a massive gap in resources for youth. 

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act secured over $1 billion in critical funding to help schools tackle the youth mental health crisis. One grant program in particular, the School-Based Mental Health Services Program, funds schools to hire and retain on-site, highly trained, culturally competent mental health professionals. These school-based supports are trained to identify students who are struggling and to provide them prompt support in tandem with the student’s support system. 

Governors and state leaders must meet the moment with increased K-12 funding, ensuring that schools and districts have the resources that they need to support our children. In my home state of New Jersey, Governor Murphy recently announced funding for a new Statewide Student Support Services network and renewed dollars for a mental health program that operates in districts across the state. Just this month, Governor Newsom announced $480.5 million in funding to improve California’s mental health infrastructure for youth. Investments like these indicate a commitment to our country’s young people, and to the educators and paraprofessionals that help them thrive. 

We can and must continue making strides in our homes and our communities to adequately address and support adolescents impacted by disordered eating. 

If you or a loved one is in crisis, call or text 988 to speak with a trained counselor.