Through my own struggle with an eating disorder for nearly a decade, and now my expertise in working with patients suffering from eating disorders, I can’t stress enough the important role families and caregivers play during the discovery, treatment and recovery of eating disorders.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. And contrary to what many believe, eating disorders are not a disorder of choice, but rather a genetic predisposition that can be triggered by any number of life-changing events, many of which take place during the developmental milestones of children. The majority of eating disorders—up to 95 percent—develop in young people between the ages of 12 and 25. During this time, children are experiencing the stress of school, being bullied and the pressure to fit in.
There is no silver bullet to prevent fear, anxiety, bullying and eating disorders in our children despite the best of intentions and ongoing support. What we can do as parents is pay attention, listen, and take meaningful action when issues arise. My colleague, Elizabeth Easton, Psy.D., the Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Services at Eating Recovery Center shares, “Parents are the first line of defense for young adults, and play a vitally important role in helping educate young people about eating disorders, and preventing a high-risk behavior from turning into a serious condition requiring medical and psychological attention.”
Many young people that suffer from eating disorders excel in school and extracurricular activities and are the last who would expect to be hiding such a problem. Don’t be quick to say “Not my child.” Be on the lookout for any changes that occur related to their appearance, demeanor, and attitude. Individuals struggling with an EDs can be highly secretive about their thoughts and behaviors, making the illness difficult for friends, families, and professional to identify.
Different red flags, indicate specific eating disorders. While the extreme weight loss associated with anorexia nervosa is an easier indicator, individuals suffering from bulimia nervosa, binge eating and other unspecified eating disorders may be more difficult.
Additional warning signs for anorexia include:
- Preoccupation with weight, counting calories and dieting
- Frequent comments about feeling “fat” despite drastic weight loss
- Development of food rituals and excuses to avoid meal times or situations involving food
Indicators of bulimia nervosa include:
- Unusual amount of trips to the bathroom after meals
- Creating complex lifestyle schedules or rituals to make time for binge-and-purge sessions and/or smells of vomiting.
- Swelling of the check or jaw area, a discoloration of the teeth and/or calluses on the back of hands or knuckles.
If you see any of these signs in your children and are concerned, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Most issues can be managed effectively with specialized treatment and recovery skills, and your child can thrive and enjoy young adulthood. You know your child better than anyone – focus on who your child is and not what they are or have. While we cannot control every factor that our children face, I like to focus on the ones that we can control.
Author: Julie Holland Faylor, MHS, CEDS is the Senior Vice President of Business Development at the Eating Recovery Center