Spotting the Signs of an Eating Disorder

Mental Health

Dr. Happy

A parent’s guide – General Signs & How to Talk to Your Child

When my daughter was in the early years of adolescence I remember asking her, in response to a comment I’d heard her make, how many of her friends were on some form of a diet (she was, at the time, about 14 or 15 and for what it’s worth NONE of her friends would have been considered overweight).

Her answer was simple and direct; “all of them”, she said.

Any parent of a teenager, especially daughters (although increasingly, young boys are “dieting” too), will probably not be at all surprised by this. Body image becomes a significantly greater issue through these years as physiques change and social pressures to be and look a certain way increase.

Much of this is normal, and understandable to an extent. But at the same time, there’s a point where the associated thoughts and behaviours can become problematic, and formal “eating disorders” can develop.

The most common forms of eating disorder are:

  • Anorexia Nervosa – Characterised by a low weight, fear of gaining weight, a strong desire to be thin and food restriction and/or excessive exercising. Complications may include osteoporosis, infertility and heart damage; anorexia can even be life threatening in the more extreme cases
  • Bulimia Nervosa - characterized by binge eating (the consumption of large amounts of food in a short period of time) followed by purging (attempts to get rid of the food consumed; usually via vomiting or the use of laxatives). Risks associated with Bulimia include chronic sore throat, stomach ulcers, irregular bowel movements and disturbance of menstrual patterns

As already hinted at, body dissatisfaction and/or some degree of dieting is extremely common in young women (and increasingly in young men). Not all of these have or will ever have a formal eating disorder so two common and important questions from parents and friends are – how do I know when “normal” becomes “abnormal”? And what do I do if I notice any warning signs?

To begin with, some of the more common “red flags” to look out for include:

  • Constant or repetitive dieting including extreme calorie counting and/or avoidance of certain food groups (including labelling some as “bad” foods)
  • Significant weight loss (or frequent changes in weight)
  • Consumption of large amounts of food in short periods of time
  • Evidence of vomiting and/or laxative use
  • Excessive exercising, even if or when injured
  • Regularly avoiding meal times (including regularly making excuses)
  • Marked change in mood (e.g. signs of depression or anxiety, especially around or associated with eating) and social withdrawal or isolation
  • Fatigue, dizziness or changes in menstrual patterns

If you notice any of the aforementioned signs of symptoms, it’s then important to approach the person; but to talk to them in a supportive and helpful way. With this in mind, below are a few tips and suggestions (and note: there’s no “right or wrong” way; what’s important is that YOU do what YOU think is right for YOU and for the person to whom you’re talking):

  • Be Prepared: do as much research as you can about eating disorders so you know what you’re talking about (see below for some useful links)
  • Choose your Time and Place: find a time and a setting where all involved will be as calm as possible and feel as supported as possible
  • Stay Calm: express your concerns using, where possible, “I” statements (as in “I feel…” or “I’ve noticed…”). Let your child know specifically what you’re concerned about and that you’d like to help if you can
  • Don’t Blame (them or the food): instead, focus as much as possible on mood and health issues
  • Don’t Try to be a Therapist: your aim should not be to provide therapy or medical services but rather, be a loving and caring parent/supporter. As such, the focus should be on expressing concern and highlighting a desire to help where and when relevant (and to help them get professional help)

In conclusion, eating disorders are relatively common and concerning among young people; but it’s important to note that with support and professional treatment, recovery is very much possible. So, do all you can to initiate conversations when necessary, even if difficult, and foster and develop realistic hope and optimism as much as possible.

PS: for more information and for links to specialised resources, check out the following great and useful websites:

Dr Happy

Please note: Dr Happy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

Category:Mental Health

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