Eating Disorder Awareness Week (1 of 5) - Does My Child Have an Eating Disorder?

Melissa M. Gonzalez, Psy.D.

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Often times, parents are shocked to learn that their child has an eating disorder. Eating Disorders (EDs) aren't always easy to identify as so many practices of disordered eating are secretive. Some parents believe that their children are simply engaging in typical dieting rituals, some have never observed an episode of binge eating or purging, some might think their child is too young for body concerns, and some simply can't believe that their child is capable of harming themselves in such a serious way. Nonetheless, early intervention is crucial and parents must learn to be savvy to ensure that their children get the necessary treatment. There are many warning signs that parents can look for in deciding if they need to seek help.

Poor self-esteem, a distorted body image, or unrealistic views of their physical appearances are almost always present. When children eat behind closed doors or in secret or when food is missing there may be cause for concern. Hoarding of foods, perhaps in preparation for a binge, also occurs in some cases. Some children may exihibit signs of guilt or shame after eating. They may avoid eating in public or in front of other people. For those who are purging, they typically excuse themselves quickly from the table and visit the restroom soon after eating. They may run the water in the shower or in the sink in order to cover up the sound of vomiting. Also, tooth decay is often a problem. Glands in the neck may be swollen and cheeks may appear puffy. Broken blood vessels may be observed in the eyes and they may also complain of a sore throat. Hair loss, paleness, and dizziness may also occur due to malnutrition. Less obvious methods of purging include use of laxatives and excessive exercise. When significant weight loss occurs, children may frequently complain of being cold. They may hide their shrinking bodies beneath layers of oversized clothing. Females may stop menstruating normally. Additionally, individuals with EDs may have an intense need for control or strong perfectionistic tendencies. Extreme or dramatic mood swings are also common and may be a sign of co-occuring mental disorders.

If you suspect that your chld may suffer from an eating disorder or may be developing patterns of disordered eating, express your concerns difectly and privately in a kind, empathic, calm and supportive manner. Be able to ask educated questions. Do not try to force your child to eat. Engaging in a power struggle will not help. Providing advice about dieting or nutrition commenting positively about appearance, or attempting to solve your child's problems is not recommended. Do not agree to keep disordered eating habits a secret. Finally, do not let fear prevent you from confronting your child. EDs have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Intervening and seeking help may save your child's life. We here at the Tarnow Center for Self-Management believe in a comprehensive approach to the treatment of eating disorders. This "attack n all fronts" often includes family therapy; and parents become an important part of the treatment process. Additionally, parents are encouraged to seek support, for themselves during this challenging process and that may take the form of support groups including other parents of children with EDs, use of online resources, or even individual therapy.

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