Eating disorders are sometimes seen as relatively common and simply being “concerned” about how you eat, but they are much more serious than this. Eating disorders are highly risky and come with some very severe consequences which at times can even lead to early death. Eating disorders can be a very sensitive subject and are often something the person wants to keep secret. This can make it extremely difficult to know if your teen may have an eating disorder and make it hard to know how best to support them. Before you can support your child through this though, you must first have an understanding of what an eating disorder is.
What are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders involve a distorted view of one’s body and changes in behaviour in an attempt to correct any “flaws” the person perceives in their body. They can range from concerns about weight, size, shape and even muscle content. They tend to emerge in the teenage years but can occur at other times in life also. Although they are more commonly reported in women, they can be diagnosed in men. The most commonly diagnosed eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia. This article will focus on these two types, but if you would like further information on different types of eating disorders, please see the resources at the end of the article.
- Anorexia nervosa – Someone with this disorder feels as though they are overweight, even when their body weight is dangerously low. People with this disorder tend to severely restrict the food that they eat, be very particular on what they eat and weigh themselves often. It can cause anemia, muscle wasting, brittle hair and nails, dry skin, unusual hair growth, damage to the heart, brain damage, tiredness, infertility, thinning of the bones and even multi-organ failures.
- Bulimia – Someone experiencing bulimia will have frequent and repetitive instances of eating unusually large amounts of food. During these times they feel as though they are unable to control themselves. Following these instances, they feel extreme guilt and try to compensate for this lack of control through different behaviors. These may include using laxatives, diuretics, starving themselves, excessively exercising or forcing themselves to vomit. People with bulimia normally maintain a healthy and normal weight and this can make it harder to notice than anorexia nervosa. Bulimia can cause a sore throat, swollen saliva glands, broken down tooth enamel, decaying teeth, electrolyte imbalances which can cause strokes or a heart attack, severe dehydration and intestinal distress.
Warning Signs of Eating Disorders:
If you notice the following signs in your teen, it is important to visit your medical practitioner.
- Food restrictions – eating tiny portions or trying to skip meals.
- Body image concerns – worrying about looking fat.
- Secretive – eating in secret or leaving straight after eating.
- Weight changes – either gaining or losing weight drastically.
- Withdrawal – pulling away from friends and family.
- Mood concerns – anxiety or depression, low self esteem and low confidence.
- Unusual eating habits – like insisting on using certain cutlery, using excessive sauces, cutting out certain foods or playing or cutting food into small pieces.
- Clothing choice – hiding under big and bulky clothing.
- Menstrual problems – late onset or lack of menstrual cycle.
- Physical concerns – including dizziness, feeling cold, problems sleeping, cuts and blisters on fingers, stomach cramps, dry skin, thin and brittle hair and nails, swelling of the feet and discoloration of their teeth.
How can I Help Support Them?
- Get them to the doctor – this is most important because eating disorders have severe medical complications. Try and work with your teen to get them to the doctor as obviously it is better if they are agreeable to this, but the most important thing is that you get them some medical, and psychological support.
- Talk to them – let them know about what you have noticed about them lately and that you are concerned. Try and keep this as non-judgmental and non-accusatory as possible. Using “I” statements opposed to “you” statements can help with this.
- Listen – if they open up to you, this is wonderful. Listen to their concerns and how they are feeling. Try and let them know that it is okay they are feeling that way and that you are here to support them.
- Come back to it – if they don’t open up, don’t be afraid to revisit the subject again on different occasions. It may take them some time to feel comfortable enough to share this with you as often they feel guilt or shame around their behaviour.
- Be aware of their influences – have a look at their friends and their interests. Sometimes this behaviour can be learned from others. There are also quite a few internet sites that are supportive of eating disorders and justify this behaviour. Ensure your teen does not have access to these types of sites. Also look at how you and your family talk about food. Beware of discussing diets or labeling foods as “good and bad”. Be careful not to put down your or others weight in front of your teen and instead of dieting try and build healthy eating habits instead.
If you feel like you need to talk to someone who can give you a more concrete plan to address your teen’s eating disorder, you can get in contact with a online therapist and get help immediately. You do not even need to make an appointment for an office visit.