By Graciela Gonzalez, EAP Counselor
It is estimated that 70 million people globally suffer from eating disorders. And while eating disorders are commonly thought of as primarily affecting young women, they can be found in women and men of all ages, as well as children. In fact, many adults with eating disorders report that their thoughts and behaviors started much earlier than anyone realized, sometimes even in early childhood. As a result, in recent years more attention has been given to the eating behaviors of children.
Recognizing eating disorders in children
While adults with eating disorders are often dealing with a negative self-image, children with eating disorders are often just mimicking behaviors they see on television, online or at home. I encourage parents to ask their children questions when they see concerning behavior. For example, a parent should ask “Why are you reading that label” or “Why do you make that face when you look at yourself in the mirror?” In addition to finding out where the child is picking up on the behavior, this also gives parents an opportunity to have a conversation with their child on the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors.
I also encourage parents to be aware of the language they are using at home in regards to dieting, weight loss, exercise and body image. Unfortunately, in most cases, children are learning these unhealthy behaviors from their parents. We teach by what we do, so if we complain that we can’t have dessert because it will make us fat, then we are teaching our children a negative association with food. By reversing the statement and saying instead, “I’m going to choose a healthy option for my dessert,” parents can help their children develop a positive association with healthy food. Children should also be taught the importance of good nutrition for healthy development.
Dieting disrupts healthy development in children. If a change in diet is needed, then a doctor or nutritionist should be involved in deciding what those changes should be.
Recognizing eating disorders in teenagers
Obvious signs of a potential eating disorder include rapid weight loss, compulsive exercising and discovery of laxatives or weight loss aids. But parents should also be concerned if they notice any of the following behaviors:
- Taking too long to eat a meal, stalling until meal time is over
- Running to the bathroom after meals
- Frequent switching of diet (ex. Going vegan for a few weeks, then switching to gluten free, then switching to low carb, etc…)
- Counting calories
- Rituals prior to eating (ex. dividing food in plate, avoiding foods prepared with certain utensils, standing up to eat)
- Excessive body checking behavior, either avoiding mirrors or compulsively looking in mirrors
- Brushing teeth excessively or bad breath in spite of good hygiene
- Changing style of dressing to hide body parts – baggy clothes, hoodies
- Wearing sweaters when it is not cold (malnourishment decreases body temperature)
- Expressing negative body image, fear of weight gain
- Dizziness and slurred speech
Supporting teenagers with eating disorders
When dealing with teenagers with an eating disorder, I encourage parents to focus on keeping the lines of communication open. Parents are not able to force change, as much as they wish they could. However, parents can let their teenager know they are aware of the problem and they want to help identify healthy solutions.
I also encourage parents to take an eating disorder seriously. It is dangerous to think of an eating disorder as a temporary fad. Individuals who struggle with eating disorders often have intense emotional distress and need help. If parents have access to an Employee Assistance Program, that could be a valuable source of support. Parents can also consult their child’s primary care physician for information about local resources to treat eating disorders.
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