Eating Disorders are among some of the most serious and challenging mental illnesses that affect our children and adolescents. Recent research suggests that up to 75% of adolescent girls view themselves as overweight or needing to lose weight and around a quarter of our teenagers are experimenting with dangerous dieting behaviour, such as taking laxatives and severely restricting their diets (Hutchings, conference). Australian research suggests that the prevalence of disordered eating behaviours have increased two-fold between 1995 and 2005 (The Paying The Price Report).
Eating disorders are characterised by unhealthy or extreme views of one’s weight and/or shape, which leads the young person to engage in severe, restrictive and dangerous eating and/or exercise behaviours. These behaviours in turn impact on the child’s life in a such a pervasive and significant way that it impacts on their ability to function in their daily lives.
Eating disorders are most common among females and while they can start at any age, teenagers between 13-18 years seem to be most at risk (TPTPR). An important question for parents is then, how do you identify and eating disorder and how to do you go about helping your child?
What are the types eating disorders?
There are several types of eating disorders, with the most recognised being Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.
Anorexia Nervosa is characterised by significant weight loss with an accompanying intense fear of gaining weight or becoming ‘fat’. People with Anorexia Nervosa see their bodies in a distorted way, typically believing they are fat even when they are extremely underweight.
Bulimia Nervosa is characterised by seemingly uncontrollable episodes of eating to excess, followed by behaviours aimed to rid the body of the calories ingested, such as undertaking excessive exercise, taking laxatives and vomiting.
Even if your child does not quite fulfill the symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, two significant risk factors for developing a more serious eating disorder are:
● Disordered eating: For example, restrictive dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, avoiding food groups, use of diet pills. Australian and New Zealand research indicates that engaging in moderate dieting behaviour puts young people at a six-fold risk of developing an eating disorder. Disordered eating is in fact the most significant indicator that your child could be developing an eating disorder.
● Body dissatisfaction: For example, feelings of shame and anger over one’s body shape, preoccupation with body shape, distorted body image (TPTPR).
How can I tell if my child may be developing an eating disorder?
In addition to disordered eating, some other indications your child may be developing an eating disorder are:
Physical changes: Significant changes in weight and weight loss, disturbed menstruation in females, general lethargy and looking pale and gaunt, feelings of dizziness, dehydration, sleep difficulties, dental decay.
Behavioural changes: Frequent weighing of self and commenting on being ‘fat’, secretive eating habits, wearing baggy clothes to conceal weight loss, denying there is a problem, attempting to harm oneself, withdrawing from socialising and family life.
Psychological signs: Expressing fear of gaining weight, foods and bodily changes, self loathing, expressions of guilt, changes in mood and loss of motivation and enthusiasm for life.
What do I do if I am am concerned that my child has an eating disorder?
Early intervention is best when it comes to treating eating disorders. Here are some tips for parents:
1. Be familiar with your child’s eating habits by regularly eating together. This will help you recognise if eating habits change and/ or become restrictive
2. Listen to how your child discusses food - are they talking about dieting, ‘bad’ foods, being fat?
3. Look at your child - has their mood changed? Are they more difficult or secretive at meal times? Are they struggling with getting to sleep and/or worrying about their body image?
If you are worried about your child’s eating behaviours, it is advisable that the first step be a visit to your GP due to the serious medical consequences eating disorders can have.
The good news is, with intervention, support and commitment to recovery, eating disorders are treatable. Treatment for an eating disorder typically involves the help of variety of people including a psychologist, nutritionist, GP, paediatrician, psychiatrist, specialist physician and the child’s family. This ‘team approach’ is aimed to support all of the child’s needs. While some children may require hospitalisation, if acutely unwell, treatment usually occurs in a community setting.
Recovery is an individual process that can include many ups and downs. The important thing to remember is that bumps in the road are common and should be viewed as learning tools rather than setbacks. Focus on what you and your child have learnt from the experience rather than the negatives and frequently reflect on the overall gains your child has made and the positives that will come from getting better.
Some more tips:
Today’s society can be a challenging one for our children to grow up in. The constant portrayals in the media of super skinny women and muscled men can lead children to measure themselves against ideals which are hard or impossible to obtain.
Some ways we can help our young people cope with these influences are:
1. Discuss with children that media portrayals are typically unrealistic and unobtainable. Airbrushing, photoshopping and editing are a few ways that celebrity images can be taken dangerously away from reality. Help your child take a critical look at these images and gain some perspective on them.
2. Limit the images that your child is seeing in the media and open discussion when unrealistic images are viewed.
3. Discuss the unique qualities of individuals that make them valuable and important members of society and reflect that it is not a certain weight and/or shape that brings joy, happiness, love, success or prestige.
4. Be a role model: focus on your own positive qualities and talents, express positive attitudes to your own body, have a healthy and balanced lifestyle that incorporates healthy eating and exercise and focuses on healthy-lifestyle goals rather than weight-loss focused goals.
5. Say positive things to yourself and others each day. Children and adolescents form beliefs about themselves from others around them. Being positive and content helps children internalise these attitudes for themselves.
6. Lobby the media, fashion and advertising industries to adhere to codes such as The Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image and Positive Body Image, which support the use of positive body image practices.
Resources that encourage an open parent-child-family communication style like the Quirky Kid Resources are highly recommended.