Could Summer Camp be a Place Where Eating Disorder Behaviors Begin?
It is amazing to me how early on children are aware of body images. My eight year old daughter has been talking about not wanting to get "fat" or "chubby" for two years now. I have no idea where she came up with that... we try to encourage healthy eating, without talking about fat vs. skinny. As parents, there is such a fine line between wanting your children to eat healthy, but also letting them eat ice cream and birthday cake, because they're kids and that's what kids do! You can try to teach healthy habits and eating in moderation, but when you are not around, you have no control.
More than 10 million American children attend a camp each summer. Because these children often spend weeks - and sometimes months - away from parental supervision, Eating Recovery Center, an international center for eating disorders recovery, urges parents to be aware of summer camp triggers that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder in their camp-going children. We are looking to send our daughter to an overnight camp next summer and I do worry about her being influenced and feeling the pressure of fitting a certain body image.
"Every year, Eating Recovery Center sees many young patients who cite summer camp as the place where their disordered eating behaviors either began or intensified," said Jamie Manwaring, PhD, primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center's Behavioral Hospital for Children and Adolescents. "It is important to recognize that summer camps do not 'cause' eating disorders; however, camps' environments can often be triggering for a child with the genetic or temperamental predisposition for an eating disorder."
Potentially triggering activities or situations may include a competitive athletic environment, exposure to bunkmates' or friends' disordered eating behaviors, an intense focus on health and nutrition or anxiety about trying to "fit in" with new camp friends. Without ongoing parental supervision, children who begin engaging in disordered eating behaviors will often maintain, or intensify them throughout the duration of camp without their parents' knowledge.
To help parents plan a healthy, fun camp experience for their children and proactively practice eating disorders prevention, Eating Recovery Center offers these five tips:
1. Look into the way meals are structured at your child's camp. Are mealtimes staffed so that camp counselors sit with campers and are available to notice if a child has stopped eating or drastically changed his or her eating habits?
2. Do some comparative research if you intend on sending your child to a sports camp. Children with a family history of eating disorders may be better suited at a camp that is focused on recreation and fun, rather than one that is focused on competition and intense fitness.
3. Send your child to camp with positive messages. Emphasize to your child that the goal of summer camp is to have fun and meet new friends. Remind your children that you love them for who they are, not what specific activities they excel at, and that it does not matter if they are the fastest runners or strongest swimmers at camp.
4. Check in with your child while he or she is at camp. Use phone calls, emails and letters as an opportunity to ask open-ended questions about his or her camp experience. Look and listen for any sudden changes in your child's overall outlook.
5. Keep an eye out for signs of eating disorders when your child returns home from camp. Is your child eating smaller portions or restricting certain foods altogether? Has eating become a power struggle? Has your child's exercise regimen significantly increased or have you "caught" him or her exercising in secret? Do you suspect purging after meals? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it may be time to seek help for a potential eating disorder.
"When parents see children after they have been away at a month- or summer-long camp, changes in body weight, overall health, general demeanor and outlook can become that much more noticeable," explains Dr. Manwaring. "If your child exhibits worrisome behaviors after returning home, do not wait to seek help. With eating disorders, the earlier the intervention, the more successful the treatment will be. Early intervention saves lives." As scary as it may seem, so many young girls, and boys, can develop an eating disorder and I for one will definitely take these tips into consideration and stay on top of it!
Eating Recovery Center Urges Parents to be Proactive in Planning a Healthy Summer Camp Experience and Vigilant for Signs of Eating Disorders Once Children Return HomeFor more information, please contact us at 877-218-1344 or info@EatingRecoveryCenter.com or confidentially chat live on our website at www.EatingRecoveryCenter.com.