As college freshmen across the U.S. return home for the holidays, thousands of parents will – for the first time – discover eating disorders that developed during their child’s first semester.Because the transition to college is one of the two most common life stages in which eating disorders develop, Eating Recovery Center (an international center for eating disorders recovery providing comprehensive treatment for anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS and binge eating disorder) encourages parents to be vigilant for symptoms of eating disorders as their teens return home for the mid-year break.
“For many young adults, the pressures of the first semester of college can create the perfect storm for eating disorders development, and it’s easy for teens to hide behaviors from their families – particularly if they go to school far away from home,” explains Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, NCC, clinical director of Eating Recovery Center’s Adult Partial Hospitalization Program. “Many parents won’t see the outcome of this devastating development until their children return home for winter break.”
Dieting to avoid the “freshman 15,” stress from academic and social pressures and anxiety tied to being away from home for the first time are common triggers of first semester eating disorders development. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the mean age of eating disorders onset in the U.S. is 19. And a 2006 poll of U.S. college campuses conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association found that one in five college students believe that at some point they have suffered from an eating disorder.
To help parents recognize eating disorders in college students and appropriately intervene, Eating Recovery Center highlights five winter break warning signs that may indicate their teen has an eating disorder or could be at risk for developing one:
1. Noticeable weight loss or weight gain since he or she entered college.
2. Helping with the preparation of holiday meals but not eating them.
3. Excessive exercise, even outdoors in poor winter weather conditions.
4. Withdrawal from family and friends and avoidance of gatherings, even if he or she has not seen loved ones for months.
5. Discussing college in a “stressed out” or obviously anxious manner or altogether avoiding conversations about school.
“Although parents may be tempted to send their young adult back to school, I strongly urge parents noticing any signs of an eating disorder to actively seek treatment,” explains Brennan. “With eating disorders, early intervention saves lives.”
Parents are encouraged to seek an eating disorders assessment if they notice these or other troubling behaviors in their teens while they are home for winter break. Recovery is entirely possible with early intervention and proper treatment from qualified professionals.