Teen Eating Disorders: Know the Warning Signs

Body image and teens. Learn more.

Initiating a conversation about someone else is a neutral, non-threatening way to broach the topic. If you hear that someone in your child’s school has an eating disorder, that is an appropriate time to bring it up. Your child already knows or will hear rumors soon, and may have questions that you can answer. If you don’t have any examples closer to home, there are frequently stories of celebrities in and out of treatment.

One that your child may already know is Demi Lovato, a teen actress and singer who has been in numerous Disney movies and TV shows. She entered a residential treatment center last fall, and in April 2011 she gave a few interviews where she discussed some pretty heavy topics.

She discussed being bullied as a child, and her subsequent depression, eating disorder, and self-mutilation, as well as her recent diagnosis with bipolar disorder, her recovery, and helping other girls in her new role with Seventeen Magazine. Here are a few sources for you that condense her story: an article that summarizes Demi’s disorders and treatment or this video where Demi discusses being bullied, her eating disorder, cutting, and her treatment.

Chances are, your children already know her story, and have heard about people at school doing things like skipping meals, purging, or cutting. Demi’s life may not have been that of a typical child, but we can use her story to check in and connect with our children.

Why should I be concerned if my kid is on a diet? I’m on a diet too.

You as an adult are more likely to have your diet in the proper perspective. Kids and teens, especially perfectionist, driven, rule-bound ones, can take things too far until it is a compulsion they cannot control. In her interview, Demi said that by fifteen years old, she was skipping most meals, and when she failed to lose weight, started throwing up. Take stock of your own eating habits – ditch the rules about food, weighing portions, or calorie counting, and instead focus on eating mostly nutritious food, only when you are hungry. Also, never cut yourself down for your weight or what you eat, or be critical about others’ weight or appearance. Before you say it, think how it would sound coming out of a child’s mouth.

My son has been losing weight, but it’s for sports, so that doesn’t count, right?

It’s true that girls and women are more likely to develop eating disorders, but out of eleven million suffering from ED today, one million of those are male. Check over the list of symptoms below, and pay attention to your instinct as a parent. If anything about the way your son is losing weight concerns you, talk to him and talk to a professional. Better safe than sorry!

What’s the difference between an eating disorder and a diet? Or, what are the symptoms of an eating disorder?

It’s possible to diet without developing an eating disorder, but most medical professionals agree that children should not be on any diets.

Where the two differ, however, is the ability or inability to think logically and rationally. So when a normal dieter looks in the mirror and sees progress, anorexics have a distorted view and cannot see themselves as anything but fat. Their irrational compulsion justifies extreme measures, like purging, skipping entire meals, and laxatives. A medical professional or therapist can help with an accurate assessment and diagnosis, but let your instinct as a parent serve as an early warning system. You are often the first to know when something is up with your child, even if you aren’t sure what it is.

Be watchful for these symptoms:

  • Different eating habits, diet plans, skipping meals, snacks, meat, or desserts, avoiding eating with others
  • Distorted, negative self-image
  • Eating alone, in secret, or at night
  • Avoiding social situations that involve food
  • Change in moods including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, irritability, obsessive behavior in other activities
  • Preoccupation with dieting, calories, food, cooking, diet books, what others are eating
  • Visiting websites that promote unhealthy weight loss
  • Any weight loss, weight gain, or failure to make expected gain in height
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Taking laxatives, diet pills, or steroids
  • Making excuses to get out of eating
  • Going to the bathroom right after meals, running water to hide vomiting sounds
  • Wearing loose clothing to hide weight loss or body shape
  • Hoarding high-calorie food, or evidence of binge eating (food wrappers, quantities of food disappearing)

If I suspect they are hiding something, should I snoop in their things?

If you are truly concerned for their safety, you are justified in violating their privacy. This is a last resort, however, and there are ways to avoid it unnecessarily. Are you sure you can’t draw it out in a conversation? If you are just curious, or feeling out of touch, you should instead be working on building your relationship. If you are paying for your son or daughter’s cell phone, internet service, and car payments, you can establish upfront rules about their use that don’t leave them feeling violated.

Be judicious with what you find. If it’s serious, such as laxatives, weapons, drugs, evidence that they are being bullied or stalked by a predator, act on it immediately. They will of course be furious and hurt, but the danger to them is substantial. If you find something upsetting but not dangerous, such as communication complaining about you, first take a deep breath, try to remember what it was like to be a teenager, and let go of your anger. Then work on strengthening your connection.

I’ve seen signs, and now I’m worried. How do I ask my son or daughter if they have an eating disorder?

If you have reason to believe there is a problem, tell them you are concerned without using guilt or blame. Begin by saying, “We have noticed this. Let’s talk.” Skip the lecture, ask open questions, and do more listening than talking. Show compassion and patience. Don’t accuse, shame, or demand anything (except, of course, a visit to a doctor).

Find a therapist that has experience and training in eating disorders. Educate yourself with the resources available from reputable sources such as the National Institute of Mental Health site, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Parent Toolkit, or call the NEDA Helpline at 800-931-2237. HelpGuide.org also has a good basic guide for family and friends.

Why is our son or daughter doing this? Is it my fault?

Finding who to blame should not be your first action. However, the question may nag you whether you as a parent have contributed to your child’s condition. Parents do not cause eating disorders. Studies have found that someone can inherit a predisposition, but there are many other factors involved. Like in Demi’s case, where she suffered from depression first, and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ED is often combined with other mental conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, or anxiety. Personality traits like perfectionism, eagerness to please, and being highly driven seem to correlate. ED patients come from every sort of family, every ethnicity, cultural background, and economic status. Parents can, however, be instrumental to recovery.

Be an educated parent, you will have healthier teens.

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