Last week, I wrote about Renfrew Center of Texas psychologist Lara Pence’s webinar presentation on the interplay between eating disorders and the tween and teen girl’s psychological and social development. Here’s part two of my account:
Going back to psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of development, Dr. Pence explained that the ages between 13 and 19, Stage 5, is when peers, role models and social relationships take center stage, young people experiment with a variety of behaviors and establish boundaries. Healthy development includes cultivating a sense of identity, and the virtues of fidelity and devotion, instead of its opposite, role confusion. Dr. Pence described “fidelity” as “believing one thing when your friends may believe something different.”
But when peer pressure takes the form of social bullying, it’s not easy to cultivate this virtue, especially if an environment of support and praise of mastery is not present at home. Not only are adolescent girls feeling under pressure to be master of everything they try, said Dr. Pence, they are also facing a heightened level of bullying about appearance. She pointed to a recent CNN report asserting that “fat is the new ugly on the playground,” with the drumbeat of harassment compounded by social media sites “where people think they’re connecting, but they’re not.” As we know, often these sites are vehicles for flaunting eating disordered thoughts and values.
Dr. Pence thinks of the eating disorders “as a way of communicating pain, anger, sadness, being able to say something without really saying it. For some girls, the treatment community, in fact, becomes a true community, “a place of bonding and real conversation,” that results in girls getting attached to treatment. For them, the challenge is to find a way to take that authenticity into the real world.
Another complicating circumstance for girls is that while the onset of menarche (monthly periods) is only a few months earlier than it once was at 12-and-a-half years, breast development is now occurring one or two years earlier than in previous decades. Early maturation increases the likelihood of depression, eating disorders, and the likelihood of physical or violent victimization, as well. Girls who mature early, said Dr. Pence, are more likely to think their body is bad, and to focus on shape weight and food.
So amid all this grim news, what can parents do? Treatment of eating disorders has increasingly moved toward including parents in the recovery process, to the point where parental involvement is now considered crucial.
Dr. Pence advice for parents is “to come from a place of compassion,” to set limits and “carve our support time” during which they ask their child how she is doing. “Listening is perhaps the most important tool a parent can use,” she said. “Parent’s have a hard time listening because they want to fix everything, but hearing is different from listening.
She also encourages parents “not to be afraid of feeling.” One piece of advice I thought was especially helpful was how Dr. Pence tells parents that their child is “in a dark and lonely place,” and that they can’t call down to their child from a “sunny spot.” Instead, “they need to walk down into the basement, experience and feel their child’s pain and sadness and loneliness. Then they can all walk up together.”
She also advised, “Be aware and work to understand the developmental place of kids. Learn about their world, explore their social environment.”