“I’m not eating that!”
How many times have you heard this as a parent? Probably too many to count. Children are notorious for being fickle when it comes to food. But, how do you know when there may be a more serious problem?
According to the ANAD, over 30 million Americans suffer
Merriam-Webster defines an eating disorder as, “any of several psychological disorders characterized by serious disturbances of eating behavior.” Typically, when we think of eating disorders, we’re referring to Anorexia-Nervosa, Binge Eating or Bulimia. While there are several ways your teen’s eating can be disordered; these are the most common.
Symptoms can include anything from eating to excess to restricting their consumption of food. As a parent, it’s hard to know the signs… but here are some clues that can help you determine what’s going on.
1. It’s Not About Food
First, it’s important for you to know that eating disorders, generally, have very little to do with food.
While there is no real consensus on the “cause” of eating disorders; an eating disorder is generally a by-product of a larger emotional or stress-related issue. So, pay attention to what’s going on with your teen. Are they struggling at school? Are they having a hard time socially? Have they struggled with emotional issues in the past? Often, teens that have had anxiety or depression are more likely to develop disordered eating.
2. A Hyper-Focus on Food
Teenagers, by nature, are whimsical creatures. It’s perfectly normal to have your fourteen-year-old declare that they’re a vegan for humanitarian reasons or abstain from eating meat because they’re making an environmental statement. These are “normal” examples of adolescents asserting their independence over themselves and their bodies. But, when your teen becomes so preoccupied with what they are… or not eating — pay attention.
Are they constantly analyzing the calorie count of every food item they ingest? Do they seem to be obsessively tracking what they consumed that day? Are they avoiding entire food groups completely? Is their focus on food taking up a large part of their day?
3. Self-Perception Is Negative
“I’m fat.” Unfortunately, this is a phrase commonly heard from teens. In this information age, kids are bombarded with re-touched and curated images that depict “perfect” bodies. It’s hard for children not to compare themselves with the images they see so frequently. But, when that comparison turns into negative thoughts about themselves, there is most likely a larger problem.
Beware if your teen is… vocalizing their dissatisfaction with what they see in the mirror, hiding behind baggy clothing or refusing to participate in regular activities because they are unhappy with the way they look. It could be a sign that there is more going on than just a fleeting frustration with their ever-changing bodies.
4. Overeating Is a Regular Occurrence
While we typically think of an eating disorder as excessive dieting or not eating at all, the National Eating Disorders Association tells us that binge eating affects 1-5% of the population. Binge eating is more than just enjoying a little extra of your favorite foods. If your teen is consuming a large amount of food at meals or snacks—usually in excess of 1,000 calories—hiding food or eating secretly, this could indicate that they’re binge eating.
5. Excessive Exercise
We all want kids to move more to be healthy. But too much exercise could be cause for alarm. The CDC recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise for kids age 6-17. If your child is participating in excessively long or strenuous workouts or trying to exercise to eliminate calories they’ve eaten, this may be a red flag.
6. Misusing Over The Counter Medicines
Laxatives, diuretics or enemas should only be utilized by your teen if they’re recommended by a doctor. These over the counter medicines are commonly used among children with eating disorders. If you notice your teen using any of these medicines and worry they may be struggling with a greater problem, talk to them about why and how they’re using them.
7. Involvement In Aesthetic Sports
Sports are generally a positive, character-building experience for kids. But, take note if your child is involved in what is called aesthetic sports. Aesthetic sports are sports where weight is monitored or emphasized. Things like dance, gymnastics, swimming, cheerleading, and wrestling are considered aesthetic sports.
Eatingdisorderhope.com cites that 42% of athletes competing in these sports demonstrated eating disordered behaviors. That does NOT mean that your child will have an eating disorder simply from participating in these activities. It simply means you must be on the lookout for any signs that lead in that direction.
So, how do you catch an eating disorder before it does further harm?
Communication is key. Knowing what obstacles and challenges your child is facing will help you determine if their behavior falls in the range of normal teenage angst, or if it may indicate something more serious.
Whether they like it or not, keep talking to your teen. If you think that they may be exhibiting any symptoms of an eating disorder, contact your doctor or a mental health professional to set up an evaluation.