Jennifer Bell, The National, February 24, 2014 Updated: February 24, 2014 22:45:00
DUBAI // Parents’ high expectations of their first born, particularly girls, are putting the children at risk of developing eating disorders.
The huge pressure of the responsibility to succeed and set a good example can prompt eldest children to rebel by reducing their food intake as a way to regain control over their own lives. The model child and the one who does well at school are most at risk, experts say. “Being the first, you end up holding a great deal of the family’s anxieties and expectations,” said Jared Alden, Counsellor in the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai Healthcare City.
“The oldest child feels a tremendous responsibility to do things the correct way.
“Children, young girls especially, we put so much pressure on them, on the way they look and act – that they have to get on in education but also marry,” said Mr Alden, 51, a psychologist and counsellor in Dubai with a 20-year background in helping people with eating disorders. This pressure can lead to girls trying to find one aspect of their life they can fully control and some find that with food management, he said.
“Eating disorders are about control, the ability to control your own life, feelings, failures and your own body. “In this way older siblings are far more likely to have an eating disorder because of the pressure on the first born. “They are put in a position of responsibility far more than younger siblings.”
Mr Alden believes between 5 and 8 per cent of young people aged 12 to 18, Emiratis and expatriates alike, suffer from eating disorders. He treats about four patients a month. “Eating disorders are still something that are successfully hidden here,” he says.
A study by Dr Justin Thomas of Zayed University and Sabrina Tahboub-Schoult of the American University of Sharjah, published last year, suggests three-quarters of young Emiratis suffer with body issues and one in five of those need clinical intervention. ”It is most definitely on the rise,” said Mr Alden, Psychologist in Dubai, not just in the UAE but in other Arab countries too. He has had patients from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt.
Parents and teachers must look for the warning signs, he said. “I would watch for the child who is very quiet, very compliant, the child who never breaks the rules, the ones who are emotionally too easy – in a sense that they never get too upset, almost as if they have a smile pasted on their faces. “Having a sense of control and rituals are a part of an eating disorder, so the child often does very well at school.” This is the “classic child”, he said.
Both teachers and parents need to reduce pressure on the child. “A lot of people rule with fear,” he said. “You have to let a child fail in your presence.” Dr Deema Sihweil, clinical psychologist and director of the Carbone Clinic, also in Dubai Healthcare City, said certain dysfunctional family dynamics had a critical influence in shaping the relationship between children and food – although she points out that no one is immune to an eating disorder.
“High pressure from parents, unrealistically set expectations of children and adolescents and pathological eating habits of the parents greatly influence their children’s development,” said Dr Sihweil.
“All of these high expectations can make one who is already predisposed more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder as an attempt to restore control.”
While parenting plays a significant part, it is not the only factor, she said. “There are equally critical emotional, biological and environmental factors as well. “Nevertheless, the family is absolutely critical in helping to identify and treat the eating disorder.
“Parents are, of course, the primary caregivers and they should model proper and relaxed attitudes about food and should never use food as a reward or punishment when disciplining children.”