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A Parents Guide to Eating Disorders

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mother and daughterIn The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, a man wakes up one morning and notices that he’s been transformed into a gigantic beetle. Everything about the room he lives in is the same, and all the people he lives with are also exactly the same. But his body has been transformed into something he doesn’t quite recognize, and he’s not able to control this new body as well as he’d like to. His family members don’t accept his new looks, either, and he is eventually killed for his transformation. This story is often assigned to adolescent students in their English classes, and while they might moan and groan over the assignment, they could develop some deep insights into their own bodies if they performed a close reading of this story. As their hormone levels begin to rise and their bodies begin to change and grow, they’re going through a metamorphosis of their own, and they may similarly feel out of control and reviled by the changes.

Some teens may attempt to take control of their changing bodies by engaging in strict exercise regimens. Others use more drastic techniques. The British Medical Journal reports that about 40 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys begin dieting during adolescence, and some develop such strong opinions about the way their bodies should look that they develop eating disorders as a result. While well-meaning teachers may attempt to counsel their students about body image through reading assignments, there’s much that parents can do at home to build upon the lessons their children are obtaining at school. By remaining alert for the symptoms of eating disorders and doing their part to keep these problems from taking hold, parents may help their children to move through the transition from childhood to adulthood in a healthy and safe manner.

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Risk Factors

parent and daughterWhile men can develop eating disorders, women remain at greater risk. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that as many as 10 in 100 young women have an eating disorder, and the teen years seem to provide a perfect breeding ground for these disorders to take hold. Teens are visual creatures, known to read magazines, watch hours of television and click on multiple photographs online. Media portrayals of successful women as thin and svelte can provide teen girls with the subtle message that their bodies should be controlled and shaped, and the changes they’re seeing will end in disaster if they don’t curb them now. Teen girls who are gaining weight and who are large consumers of media messages like this might be at very high risk of developing an eating disorder.

Some mental illnesses can also contribute to the development of eating disorders, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

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Eating disorders can function as a form of self-medication, allowing people to feel a modicum of control in a world that seems dangerous and out of control. There may also be chemical links between specific types of mental illnesses and eating disorders. For example, the Academy for Eating Disorders reports that brain chemicals such as serotonin may be present in abnormal levels in people who have eating disorders. Serotonin deficiencies have also been linked to some types of depression. More research on linkages like this is certainly needed, but for now, it’s reasonable for parents to proceed with caution and monitor their teens closely if they have a history of mental illnesses. Eating disorders might soon follow.

Trauma in the home could also be the spark that allows an eating disorder to bloom. Teens who have been physically or verbally abused can turn their anger inward, punishing their bodies with starvation and purging and celebrating the control they exercise in keeping their urge to eat under control. Some teens also find eating large amounts of food to be distracting and comforting, and they binge to keep their own destructive thoughts at bay. If the home life is disrupted, or teens have been through a traumatic event at school or with friends, parents would be wise to monitor the situation closely to ensure that the teen is coping with the changes with grace.


Spotting the Signs

It’s easy enough to encourage parents to watch for signs of disordered eating in their children, but if parents aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for, all the monitoring in the world will be of little use. Reading about the signs and symptoms can be a bit distressing, as parents might not want to even think about their precious children hurting their bodies in this manner, but being aware might help parents to assist their children before the issues escalate.

Anorexia might be the eating disorder parents can spot with relative ease, as people who have this disorder are often remarkably thin. Their relentless pursuit of a thin frame causes them to shun most foods, and they may use a variety of techniques to make the family believe that they are eating, including:

  • Making family meals
  • Cutting food into very small bites
  • Pushing food around on the plate
  • Leaving the table after meals in order to purge any food that was eaten

male eating disordersThe weight loss anorexia can cause is dramatic, and it can cause a variety of body systems to struggle and fail. Teens with anorexia may become infertile, and they may lose hair on their heads and grow fine hairs on their faces and arms. Teens may also wrap themselves in layers and layers of clothing and still report feeling cold almost all the time.

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Teens who have bulimia may also be quite thin, but many teens who have this disorder manage to maintain a normal weight. Some might even be a little overweight for their height. This disorder is characterized by binges, in which the person eats an incredible amount of food in one sitting. When the binge is over, the person uses vomiting or laxatives to push the food out of the body before the calories can hit the person’s system. This is a subtle disorder, based on behaviors instead of weight, and it can be hard for parents to monitor their children 24/7 to ensure that the teens aren’t exhibiting warning signs like this. However, teens who vomit may develop serious tooth erosion problems their dentists might spot, and those who rely on laxatives may develop electrolyte imbalances that lead to fainting spells and other health problems.

Vomiting and purging can be quite destructive, but some teens develop a variant of bulimia in which they don’t remove the foods they eat. These binge eating disorders can cause a dramatic rise in weight, as teens could take in thousands more calories than their bodies can process in a single day. That weight gain might also be accompanied with late-night trips to the grocery store for more food or pleas for a bedroom refrigerator.

Eating disorders can also fall into categories that aren’t specified here. These people may have specific struggles with foods, but they may not meet the specific diagnostic criteria that allow them to obtain an official diagnosis that’s easily summed up with one name. “Eating disorders not otherwise specified,” the clunky name given to disorders like this, is the most common diagnosis for people who ask for help, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Spotting these disorders can be difficult, as they can vary so widely from person to person.


sad girlHow to Intervene

Many teen issues do tend to fade with time, as teens become more comfortable and confident, but eating disorders don’t seem to be issues that teens tend to “grow out of.” In fact, teens who don’t get help for their eating disorders tend to develop entrenched opinions of how their bodies should look and how their stress and anxiety should best be handled. Without help, these can become lifelong habits that are incredibly difficult to change. Parents who intervene and get their teens help to improve may prevent these patterns from becoming a permanent part of their teen’s life.

Some teens benefit from calm and patient talks with their parents in which they’re allowed the opportunity to discuss their image concerns and their hopes for the future. Parents can provide gentle coaching to help these teens feel more confident, and they may follow up these informal talks with therapy sessions with a licensed counselor. With this two-pronged approach, some teens are able to gain insight about their eating disorders and leave developing problems behind. There are some teens, however, who are remarkably resistant to the idea of changing their eating behaviors, and they may lash out each and every time they’re approached without ever agreeing to make any kind of change in the way they act or the way they eat. These teens may need a more structured type of assistance.

Help From Within The Family

familySome families hold an intervention in which they outline how eating disorders work, why they think the teen has an eating disorder, why treatment will work and where that treatment will take place. These parents may then enroll their children in these treatment programs and go through therapy sessions of their own to learn how to help their children. Often, parents are asked to take over responsibility for feeding their children, and they may function as cheerleaders who push their children to eat healthful meals on a regular basis and stick to the meal plans their treatment teams have put together for them. It might sound controlling, but it’s important to remember that eating disorders can be deadly. For example, the National Eating Disorders Association reports that between 5 and 20 percent of people with anorexia will die of the disorder. Irritating and controlling a child might be difficult, but allowing that child to die might be a consequence parents aren’t willing to face.

happy girlPreventing a Problem

Talking with a teen about eating disorders can be an effective way to help that child move past the behaviors and develop a healthy life. Preventing the problem from ever taking place might be a more effective step parents can take. By helping their children to develop a healthy body image, and remaining alert for signs of negative self-talk and self-loathing, parents can do their part to ensure that children have the skills they’ll need to stay away from eating disorders.

People with a healthy body image feel comfortable with what their bodies can do and how their bodies function. They don’t spend time worrying about how they look when compared to others, and they aren’t relentless about using diet or exercise in order to force their bodies to assume a shape that isn’t quite natural. It takes time to develop a body image like this, and teens might not yet have the inner confidence it takes to remain accepting of their bodies at all times. Parents can help by eliminating a few words from their vocabulary, including:

  • Fat
  • Chubby

  • Thin
  • Skinny

Jokes about a teen’s weight shouldn’t be tolerated within the household, and parents should steer clear of complimenting their children for their weight or muscle size. Instead, teens should be complimented for their intellectual skill, their kindness or their accomplishments.

Parents can also share photographs of their own bodies during puberty, discussing their own thoughts or feelings about how their bodies changed and what they thought might happen as they grew. Teens might not seem receptive to these reminiscences, but they might appreciate learning a little more about how their parents dealt with a situation that is so personal and private.

Discussing the Issue

girl looking out windowFamilies who make time to discuss the issue on a regular basis might be providing their children with ongoing immunization shots against eating disorders. When teens are reading magazines or watching television, parents can point to specific models they see and open up a conversation about media messages about weight. Asking teens to comment on whether models seem to represent the truth about weight and diet might be a great way to get teens to think critically about the culture that surrounds them, before they internalize the messages and develop eating disorders in response.

Parents can also use mealtimes to help their children learn more about eating disorders.

Teens are notoriously picky eaters, and left to their own devices, they may not pull together diets that are healthy for them in any way. For example, a study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that 28 percent of adolescents don’t eat enough fruit, and 36 percent don’t eat enough vegetables. Some teens may write off entire sections of the food pyramid, claiming that the foods are “fatty.” Allowing teens to participate in drawing up the family menu, and reminding teens of the importance of creating a healthy diet that supports the needs of their growing bodies, may help teens to move the focus from weight and taste to nutrition and health.

Leading by Example

Eating disorders seem to have roots in genetics, according to an article in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics, as people who have these disorders tend to share the same types of genetic markers and exhibit the same traits, even if they weren’t raised in the same household. Eating disorders can also pass down through family preferences, as children tend to mimic the behaviors they see their parents using on a regular basis. One of the best methods parents can use to protect their children from eating disorders involves taking a long, hard look at the behaviors parents use to control their own impulses. Parents who relentlessly criticize their own body shape, diet in order to find the perfect weight, or endlessly comment on the shapes and sizes of other people might have their own food-related concerns that they’re passing down to their children. Counseling might be the best way for these parents to resolve their own issues with food, so they can better help their own children.

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