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I'm worried my kid has an eating disorder. What should I do?
By Rachel Ehmke, managing editor of the Child Mind Institute. Shared in partnership with childmind.org.
All teenagers worry about their appearance. Self-esteem can be precarious during adolescence, and body consciousness comes with the territory. But if you've noticed that your child is fixated on weight, you're probably worried. You might also be worried about the messages your child is receiving in the media and online. If she has been hearing about the increasingly popular body-positivity movement, then she might actually be hearing some very positive messages about prioritizing health and happiness over a number on a scale. (Visit the Child Mind Institute to learn more about helping kids with eating disorders.)
But parents should know there are also online communities where people with eating disorders go to promote unhealthy eating and exercise. This means that kids who are seeking connection with others online are at risk of connecting with people who nurture self-destructive behavior. If you're worried that your child might have an eating disorder, pay attention to what she's reading online.
Eating disorder characteristics
So what is the difference between normal behavior and behavior that might indicate an eating disorder?
Fixated on appearance: Young people who develop eating disorders are extraordinarily focused on their appearance as a measure of self-worth. While other kids tend to stake their identities on their interests and accomplishments, these teenagers have their emotions, and their lives, wrapped up in thoughts of food and appearance.
Extreme dieting: Anorexia nervosa, the most common eating disorder, is self-imposed starvation, usually by a young woman who is otherwise high-functioning. Personality types more likely to develop the disorder include athletes, perfectionists, and overachievers. They are driven to maintain a dangerously low body weight because of a distorted self-image. Detecting anorexia can be very difficult because it typically affects high-performing kids.
Overeating: Kids with bulimia nervosa, the other most common eating disorder, indulge in periodic and usually secretive binges. Many kids with bulimia say they feel out of control during their binges and describe them as "out-of-body experiences." To compensate, many will purge afterward or diet strenuously. Teenagers with the disorder may be very influenced by body ideals perpetuated in media and popular culture. It can be difficult to diagnose the disorder because people with bulimia can have a normal body weight or may even be overweight.
Signs to look for
Kids with eating disorders often try to keep their unhealthy eating habits and behaviors a secret, but there are still some signs that parents might notice, such as:
- Losing weight unexpectedly and/or being dangerously thin (Despite their extreme thinness, kids with anorexia usually don't think they are unhealthy and actually want to lose even more weight.)
- Obsessing over calorie counts, nutritional facts, and diets
- Spending many hours exercising to burn off calories
- Skipping meals
- Avoiding eating socially
- Irregular periods, thinning hair, and constant exhaustion
Signs of bulimia
- Exercising excessively or using diet pills or laxatives
- Going to the bathroom immediately after meals
- Spending a lot of time in the bathroom
- Having a sore throat, sore knuckles, discolored teeth, and poor enamel
- Hoarding food in their room
- Large amounts of food going missing at home
What can parents do?
- Try to establish healthy eating habits. Make a routine of eating healthy, balanced meals as a family.
- Discuss foods in terms of how healthy they are, not how "good" or "bad" they are.
- Don't criticize your child's weight or appearance. Adolescence is a difficult time for most kids, and it's essential to provide them with a nurturing and supportive environment.
- Some kids are more likely than others to develop eating disorders. Be extra vigilant if you have a family history of eating disorders or if you know your child is under extreme pressure to look a certain way.
- Eating disorders in children are very serious and can be deadly. If you think your child has an eating disorder, you should contact a doctor for help immediately.