To treat a full blown eating disorder is a long process. Catching one before it takes hold can save so much turmoil and heartache for the whole family. A lot of teenage boys and girls express body image concerns and our job as parents is to validate their concerns but redirect their attention onto thinking about their general health. It’s helpful to say something like: We all feel like that from time to time, but being healthy is what’s important.
Passing references to feeling fat or ugly shouldn’t alarm you. Constant talk of poor body image should. Obviously if your child is not eating, exercising excessively and losing weight, you will notice it. But there are more subtle warning signs that a lot of parents miss. Eating disorders are highly contagious within friendship groups. They can egg each other on to lose weight. Teens go online to find ways around having to eat extra calories. Teens are pretty good at tricking their parents into thinking that they are not developing an eating disorder.
When a young person isn’t eating enough, they can be constantly nauseous and they may have stomach pains. A common trick is to start blaming the nausea and stomach pains on a food allergy. I think I might be lactose intolerant, they tell their parents. Every time I have milk or cheese or yoghurt, I feel sick. Sounds reasonable to the parent who agrees to trial a dairy free diet. Bingo, there goes the need to consume calories from dairy. Pretty soon, there’s talk of gluten intolerance or a sudden ethical decision to be a vegetarian is made. Bang, there goes the need to consume calories from meat and bread. Before you know it, your child is only eating fruit for breakfast and salad for dinner and who knows what for lunch.
Your child may well be lactose or gluten intolerant and they may want to be a vegetarian, but don’t take their word for it. Take them to your GP for testing. Talk to a dietician who specialises in eating disorders or you may be unconsciously enabling an eating disorder to take hold.
Other warning signs include:
- Claiming to have eaten before they come home
- Irregular periods in girls
- Looking at pro-anorexia sites online
- Exercising at odd times
- Constantly talking about food and wanting to know exactly when the next meal will be
If you do notice any of these warning signs, talk to your child about your concerns. Expect resistance, but stay strong. If talking to them doesn’t work, get some help. Your GP is always the best place to start.