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What You Should Know About EATING DISORDERS

It can be a challenge for parents to tell the difference between kids’ normal self-image concerns and warning signs of an eating disorder.

While many kids and teens—girls in particular—are self-conscious, compare themselves with others, talk about dieting, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have eating disorders. In kids with eating disorders, there are glaring abnormal behaviors and physical signs.

Someone with anorexia might:

• only eat certain foods, avoid foods like dairy, meat, wheat, etc. (of course, lots of people who are allergic to a particular food or are vegetarians avoid certain foods)

• withdraw from social activities, especially meals and celebrations involving food

• be depressed, lethargic (lacking in energy), and feel cold a lot

• be obsessed with eating, food, and weight control

• become very thin, frail, or emaciated

• weigh herself or himself repeatedly

• count or portion food carefully

• exercise excessively

• feel fat

Someone with bulimia might:

• withdraw from social activities, especially meals and celebrations involving food

• spend most of his or her time working out or trying to work off calories

• make excuses to go to the bathroom immediately after meals

• be intensely unhappy with body size, shape, and weight

• only eat diet or low-fat foods (except during binges)

• regularly buy laxatives, diuretics, or enemas

• fear weight gain

If You Suspect an Eating Disorder

If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, it’s important to intervene and make sure the disorder is diagnosed and treated. Kids with eating disorders often react defensively and angrily when confronted for the first time. Many have trouble admitting, even to themselves, that they have a problem.

Trying to help when someone doesn’t think he or she needs it can be hard. Remember, it’s not your job to diagnose your child—only a doctor can do that. Your job is to express your concerns and get your child to a medical professional for an objective and accurate assessment.

Approach your child in a loving, supportive, and non-threatening way. Try to bring up your concerns when your child feels comfortable and relaxed, and there are no distractions.

Your child may be more receptive to a conversation if you focus on your own concerns, and use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. For example, steer clear of statements like “you have an eating disorder” or “you’re obsessed with food,” which may only prompt anger and denial. Instead, try “I imagine that it’s very stressful to count calories of everything you eat” or “I’m worried that you have lost so much weight so quickly.” Cite specific things your child has said or done that have made you worry, and explain that you want your child to see a doctor to put your own mind at ease.

If you still encounter resistance, talk with your doctor or a mental health care professional about other approaches.

Treating Eating Disorders

Treatment focuses on helping kids cope with their disordered eating behaviors and establish new patterns of thinking about and approaching food. This can involve medical supervision, nutritional counseling, and therapy. The professionals will address a child’s perception about his or her body size, shape, eating, and food.

Kids who are severely malnourished may require hospitalization and ongoing care after their medical condition stabilizes. Generally, the earlier the intervention (ideally, before malnutrition or a continual binge-purge cycle starts), the shorter the treatment required.

Preventing Eating Disorders

You can play a powerful role in your child’s development of healthy attitudes about food and nutrition.

Your own body image can influence your kids. If you constantly say “I’m fat,” complain about exercise, and practice “yo-yo” dieting, your kids might feel that a distorted body image is normal and acceptable.

At a time of great societal concern about obesity, it can be tricky for parents to talk with their kids about their eating habits. It’s best to emphasize health, rather than weight. Make sure your kids know that you love them for who they are, not how they look.

Finally, take an active role in creating a healthy lifestyle for your family. Involve your kids in the preparation of healthy, nutritious meals. Let them know that it’s OK to eat when hungry and refuse food when they’re not. Also, make exercise a fun, rewarding, and regular family activity. Developing your own healthy attitudes about food and exercise will set an excellent example for your kids.


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