Parenting advice to help you identify the early signs of an eating disorder in children and what to do is you suspect your daughter (or son) has one
“An eating disorder? Impossible!” “Not my daughter!” Disbelief is usually our first response when we read the headlines about anorexia, bulimia and binging. But the fact is at least ten percent of all adolescent girls suffer from eating disorders. Boys now make up about 30 percent of younger children with eating disorders. The disease has no boundaries: male or female, young or old, urban or rural, Catholic or Jewish, black or white. And the rates are only increasing. But perhaps most disturbing: children as young as five are now diagnosed with eating disorders.
Make no mistake: the consequences are very serious and can be life threatening. Not only is a child with eating disorders at risk for a stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and sleep apnea, but also depression. Anorexia increases a child’s risk of premature death by more than 12 times the expected rate. Over 1000 girls die each year from complications. If you have the slightest suspicion that your child may have an eating disorder do not wait. The earlier treatment begins the greater the likelihood that your child will recover or at least make significant progress. That alone is ground to make this change. Start now!
Here are a few evidence-based solutions so we will succeed. The trick is to consistently use the solution but also turn the “tip” into a parenting “philosophy.” Of course, the secret is to parent for prevention and what I call “real and lasting change.”
Know the signs. Eating disorders are difficult to detect in the early stages, but here are signs. (Specific descriptions are pages 499 of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions).
- Mealtime a constant battle
- Eats in bizarre way (obsessive, picky, hides food, bizarre eating times etc)
- Counts calories obsessively
- Unrealistic assessment of weight
- Stops menstruating or skips periods
- Radical change in temperament
- Physical changes
- Hoards or hides food
- Strange bathroom behaviors (excessive mouth wash to cover up vomit, leaves shower or loud music on to cover up sound, spends excessive time possibly vomiting)
- Large changes in weight
- Uses extreme dieting methods
- Compulsive eating
- Problems with joints, gums or teeth
Limit celebrity media consumption. A five-year study by the AAP found that the more frequently a girl reads those fashion magazines, the more likely she is to resort to extreme weight control behaviors. What’s more: when a celebrity goes on a diet, 70 percent of tween girls want to as well. Teach your child to be media literate and to resist the ways television, movies, and magazines portray underweight women as glamorous and muscle-bound men as all-powerful. While you’re at it, put down those celebrity and fashion magazines yourself. Your child is taking notes.
Check your attitude. Kids who see and hear their parents (especially moms) worrying about their weight and appearance may adopt the belief that being thin is the standard to achieve. While parents do not cause eating disorders, they may unintentionally set off your child’s genetic susceptibility or develop one by picking up your attitudes. So watch your comments and tune into your own behavior.
Build self-esteem. A positive and well-rounded sense of self-esteem and healthy body image are two of the best means of preventing an eating disorder. So find ways to help your child gain competence in physical, social and academic endeavors. Praise her for her “inside qualities,” not her appearance. Help her discover and nurture her innate strengths and personal qualities. Let her know you love her just because she breathes and exists–not for how she looks.
Hide the scale. A study of more than 2000 teens found that those who weighed themselves frequently were more likely to resort to bingeing, skipping meals, taking diet pills, using laxatives and vomiting. Constantly monitoring those pounds can lead to an unhealthy weight preoccupation especially for girls who are already concerned about how they look. So put away the scale.
Watch her friends. Research on 15,349 adolescents found that eating disorders are contagious and become “transferrable” when girls start sharing their extreme dieting secrets—from fasting, binging, taking diet pills and laxatives—and glorify their anorexic lifestyles. Tune in a bit closer to what your daughter’s friends are talking about. If the focus is all about the latest “diets” and “dress size” it may be time to steer your child toward others friends with healthier outlooks.
Eat regular family meals. A longitudinal survey of over 1500 adolescents found that girls who regularly ate family meals a few times a week in a structured and positive atmosphere were one-third less likely to develop an eating disorder and significantly less likely to use extreme dieting measures.
Find help! The ideal time to help your child learn new eating and behavior habits is at the first hint of an eating disorder. If you suspect your child may have an eating disorder, GET HELP!
Tips from this blog were adapted from the chapter, “Eating Disorders” in my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. For specific signs, research, resources, and more thorough solutions please refer to the chapters on Eating Disorders, Growing Up Too Fast, Picky Eating, Depression, Stressed, Anxiety.
You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.