Is your child normally engaged and motivated but suddenly having trouble paying attention? Are they more withdrawn than usual? It might be tempting to write this off as just laziness or a passing “phase.” Yet this might be a sign of a larger problem. In fact, social withdrawal and isolation is often one of the first signs of a possible eating disorder.
It’s estimated that about 5.2% of adolescent girls have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa often begin around age 12 or 13, and they have one of the highest mortality rates among mental illnesses. The NEDA estimates that individuals ages 15 to 24 with anorexia have a 10 times higher rate of dying when compared to their peers.
Clearly, it’s critical that you be aware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders so you can facilitate an early intervention.
The Truth About Common Eating Disorder Myths
When you hear the term “eating disorder,” what comes to mind? Often we picture a very thin, young woman wearing baggy clothes … but eating disorders don’t always fit this stereotype. For example, a child struggling with bulimia nervosa may appear to be of normal weight or even overweight, even though they are regularly binge eating and then purging.
The National Institute of Mental Health reminds us that it’s not always young women dealing with eating disorders; while they are twice as common in young women, many young men struggle with this too.
What Parents Should Look For
Instead of relying on the stereotypical image of eating disorders, learn to recognize the common physical, emotional and behavioral signs of eating disorders. According to eating disorder specialists, social isolation is one of the first signs that a child has an eating disorder. This may be because they are trying to hide their eating behaviors or they have experienced teasing or comments about their appearance or eating habits.
Other common physical, emotional and behavioral signs of an eating disorder, according to NEDA, are:
- Frequent complaints about body image
- Incessant talk about weight, food or appearance
- Rigid attitudes and behaviors toward eating
- Focus on perfection
- Little or flat emotion
- Social isolation
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Complaints of abdominal pain or feeling bloated
- Feeling faint, cold or tired (may have blue hands and/or feet)
- Calluses on knuckles from self-induced vomiting
- Dry hair or skin, or thinning hair
- Skipping meals; throwing away food
- Exercising for long periods of time
- Wearing baggy clothes to hide appearance
How You Can Help Your Child
As a parent, you have a real opportunity to provide help and hope to your child if they are struggling with an eating disorder. Keep in mind that your child may be dealing with emotional pain and feel like their lives are out of control. They need you to listen and help them find hope for a healthier way of living.
NEDA’s Parent Toolkit suggests if you believe your child might be dealing with an eating disorder, start by talking with them. Choose a quiet place to talk, and let your child know of your concerns and your next steps; for instance, that you’ve set up a doctor’s appointment for them. “Don’t worry about convincing them they have a problem. What you need to do as a parent won’t necessarily depend on their ability to believe there is something wrong,” according to NEDA.
During this initial conversation, make sure to:
- Be calm, caring and non-judgmental.
- Be specific when expressing your observations, such as “I am concerned when I see you running to the bathroom after dinner.”
- Be prepared for a range of emotions from your child in response. Some children immediately accept they have an eating disorder, while others express anger and denial even if it’s true. Remember to remain calm and minimize your emotion.
- Let your child know you will be taking them to an evaluation by an eating disorder expert and that you will support them completely.
It’s important for you to be supportive of your child and non-judgmental throughout their treatment and recovery process. Be involved in their treatment, and keep open lines of communication with them at all times. Let them know they can come to you with any struggles they encounter during and after treatment.
Think of yourself as a bridge that connects your child with the medical professionals who can help them and the types of treatment available to them. A child struggling with an eating disorder likely feels alone in their struggle, and by serving as a bridge, you can give them the opportunity to find the help — and hope — they need.