Eating Disorders in Teens and Preteens
About half of all teenage girls and one third of teenage boys are using unhealthy weight control behaviors. Whether through fasting, over exercising, skipping meals, smoking, purging or the use of laxatives or diuretics, many are engaging in harmful eating practices to conform to an unrealistic body image of model thinness that is portrayed by the media and reinforced through peer pressure. If your child ritually engages in one or more of these habits, it may not just be a sign of low self-esteem but a more serious underlying issue - an eating disorder.
Eating Disorder Warning Signs
An eating disorder is when an individual becomes so preoccupied with food and weight that they have difficulty focusing on anything else. Those who suffer from eating disorders often have extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors about food and weight issues. There are three main eating disorders - anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder - and each has different warning signs.
Anorexia is a disorder that's characterized by obsession with food and being thin to the point of starvation. Has your child lost a great deal of weight in a short time period? Does he or she wear layers of clothing to hide their weight loss? An intense fear of weight gain or being fat despite being underweight and extreme concern with body weight and shape are other signs of anorexia.
Bulimics suffer from episodes of bingeing and purging where a large amount of food is eaten in a short duration followed by self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercise to offset calorie intake. Does your child often go to the bathroom after eating? Do you ever find wrappers or other evidence of a large amount of food consumed in a short time period? Other common signs of bulimia are repeated episodes of binging and purging, frequent dieting and extreme concern with body weight and shape.
Eating excessively on a regular basis even when not hungry or full is a hallmark sign of a binge eating disorder. Do you ever find hidden stashes of food? Does your child often eat when they are not hungry? Other signs of compulsive overeating include the disappearance of large amounts of food in a short time period and engaging in sporadic fasting or repetitive dieting.
How to Help Your Child
Read up on eating disorders before breaching the topic so you'll be more prepared if he or she is ready to talk. If your child shows signs listed above, and you think they may have an eating disorder, the first step to getting them the help they need is to confront them, but be careful to avoid words or tone that could come across as judgmental or accusatory. Emphasize that you are approaching them out of concern and love. Cite specific examples that have raised a red flag or observations you've made such as, "I noticed that you've lost weight recently and many of your clothes no longer fit." Then allow him or her to respond. Be prepared to be a good listener.
If your child does have an eating disorder, it will be a difficult subject for him or her to talk openly about. Don't be surprised if denial is the first reaction you get. Be patient and calm, and offer encouragement and support. The most important thing you can offer to someone who may be suffering from an eating disorder is your unconditional love and support.
If your child is receptive, ask if he or she would be willing to talk to a doctor. If they don't want to talk, try revisiting the topic again soon unless you think they may be in life-threatening danger or may need immediate medical care. In the event of an emergency, always call 911.
With treatment by a qualified health professional or team of care providers, those who suffer from eating disorders can receive the help they need to avoid or put an end to the emotional and physical toll eating disorders can take. For more information on eating disorders, including a parent toolkit, visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.
Dr. Jeffrey Hutchings is a family medicine physician at Crown Point Family Medicine, which is affiliated with Presbyterian Novant Medical Group.