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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Eating disorders show the high cost of pressure

Parents should be aware of the right way to deal with their older children and to give them the space to control their lives

When doctors first diagnosed “Miriam”as anorexic, she was in a state of denial. At the time she was in her early 20s, at the height of her life with a loving family, a good education and a decent job. Most people in society would have viewed her as lucky. Despite doing some research about the illness, she completely rejected the idea. It was only after her family showed serious concern over her condition – including her mother asking what was wrong, why she didn’t eat any more, why she kept to herself and didn’t go out – she eventually ­accepted there was a problem and sought treatment.

Some psychologists might attribute Miriam’s illness to the pressure she felt as a successful young woman. But as the eldest child in her family, she also exemplified a condition – as The National reported yesterday – where experts have identified parents’ wishes for their firstborn children to succeed and set a good example as a factor that can lead to eating disorders. Women in particular feel this pressure, expected as they are to not only succeed in education and excel in their career, but to marry early, marry well and raise perfect children. Some young women rebel against such expectations and attempt to regain control over their own lives by managing their food and eating less.

Jared Alden, a psychologist with the German Neuroscience Centre in Dubai Healthcare City, told this newspaper that eating disorders are “about control – the ability to control your own life, feelings, failures and your own body”. This helps explain why older children are at particular risk.

This is a serious issue that deserves our attention. A UAE-based study last year showed 75 per cent of young Emiratis suffer from body-­image issues. The main researchers, Dr Justin Thomas and Sabrina Tahboub-Schoult, suggested that one in five of those cases justified clinical intervention. Pressure to have a slim body shape is another predictor of developing eating disorders, with women in particular finding their career and even marriage prospects affected by superficial notions of beauty.

In this, parents have a key role. They should be aware of the right way to deal with their older children and to give them the space to control their lives. Young women, like men, should be given the chance to learn through failure. High expectations are good, but the chance for men and women to try and fail is essential. Men and women may wish to have it all, and should be given every opportunity to achieve, but they should not feel such overwhelming pressure to never make a mistake.