Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and in less than a decade, children under the age of 12 admitted to the hospital for eating disorders rose 119 percent.
While these statistics can be frightening to parents, there are some things you can do to be proactive in the fight against eating disorders, such as understanding the warning signs, knowing how and when to approach your child if you have concerns about weight, and learning the role of the family in the treatment and recovery processes of an eating disorder.
Children commonly experience food preferences as they experiment with different tastes and textures, which can lead to picky or selective eating phases. This can make it difficult for families to distinguish between normal eating behaviors and the onset of disordered eating behaviors. Families should closely monitor changes in attitude or behaviors in their child related to food, exercise or the way they talk about their body. More specifically, a family can look for increased or decreased interest in food, weight gain or loss not otherwise associated with puberty, increased isolative behaviors or temperamental changes and increased comments about their body. A family member may also notice changes in school performance, so it could be helpful to schedule a session with your child’s teacher for additional observations from outside the home. Trust your instincts and if you are concerned about an eating disorder you should consult your doctor or an eating disorder specialist.
How to Talk to Your Child
When talking to your child about concerns of an eating disorder, it’s important to be genuinely curious instead of accusatory or judgmental. It is helpful to speak to facts as opposed to assumptions. Identify specific changes in behaviors so that your child is aware that you are paying attention and care. As an example, “You used to always join us for ice cream after dinner and it was so nice to hear about your day. Now I noticed you go right to your room, instead of having ice cream with us. What can I do to help you join us again?” Another point to consider is the timing of the conversation to increase the likelihood it will be effective. Try to find a private time outside of a meal when there will be minimal interruptions to have the conversation. Remember, you aren’t expected to be an expert in eating disorders, but you are an expert in your child, so approach this conversation from a place of loving concern and ask questions instead of making assumptions to learn more about how your child is feeling.
What Not to Say
An initial approach to take, if you are observing weight gain or weight loss in your child, is to have a conversation about variety and balance in food choices and exercise before discussing weight. Stay away from describing foods as “good” or “bad.” This conversation should be adapted based on the age of the child. A conversation centered on weight may result in feelings of shame, which could lead to increased eating disorder behaviors. It can be helpful to start a discussion focused on identifying alternative healthy behaviors rather than focusing on the weight.
The Role of the Family
The family is the biggest ally in the treatment of an eating disorder. The eating disorder keeps the child from being able to make healthy decisions around eating behaviors. The family fed the child prior to the development of the eating disorder and is the most knowledgeable about how to feed the child based on the child’s preference and not the preference of the eating disorder. The family can create consistency and structure in the home to increase the likelihood of recovery. Siblings serve as wonderful cheerleaders and can help their sibling with an eating disorder by offering distractions during difficult times, such as playing a game or simply watching TV together. An eating disorder can impact a whole family and therefore recovery can be more successfully achieved when the family partners together against the eating disorder.
How Parents Can Learn More
Eating Recovery Center (ERC) is a national, vertically integrated, health care system dedicated to the treatment of serious eating and related disorders at any stage of the illness. ERC offers treatment programs for all patients, no matter their age or gender, struggling from: anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, eating and weight disorder, unspecified eating disorders, as well as comorbid, co-occurring and dual diagnoses.
Elizabeth Curran, LCPC Clinical Manager, Adolescent Program for Eating Recovery Center.