Helping children who may be struggling with an eating disorder

Helping children who may be struggling with an eating disorder

We tell our kids they must eat to be healthy, yet the media tells them they need to starve themselves to be attractive. The result is that too many kids are struggling with body image issues, and Anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness in adolescents. Here are some tips and tools for parents to help them recognize the danger signs and understand what to do next.


Do

Do validate your child’s feelings

Let children know that while you may not understand or agree with what they are saying about themselves, you do understand it is how they truly feel. When struggling with an eating disorder, a person is dealing with feelings over facts. And while their negative feelings towards their bodies may be completely without merit, it is vital that they feel acknowledged and heard.

Say something such as, “I hear what you are saying and understand it is what you believe, but I just don’t see it and wish that I could help you see the incredible person that you are.” It’s okay for parents to not always have the answers, and sometimes our kids even appreciate when we can admit that we don’t.

Do engage in fun activities as a family

An eating disorder doesn’t just affect the person struggling with it, but affects the rest of their family as well. With so much attention being placed on the struggling child, it is easy for siblings to feel ignored and forgotten, which can turn into resentment. Make sure that the eating disorder doesn’t become the family focus by scheduling weekly family activities, such as going to see a movie, bowling or playing board games. It can be anything your family enjoys, just keep it fun and include the entire family.

Do seek help and do research

You cannot do this alone. Start with your family doctor and ask for resources that can provide support for your child and for yourself. Call your local hospitals and look into what programs they may provide. Go online to find support groups that connect you with other parents in the same position, who may be able to offer more suggestions.

Do feel free to ask your child’s teachers and coaches for support

Many kids spend most of their time at school or involved in afterschool activities. Let their teachers and coaches know that confidentiality is a must, and then tell them what is going on. It is critical for parents to be aware of their child’s behavior, as well as what their eating habits look like when they are not at home. There is strength in numbers and the more support you and your child have, the better you will all be.

Do love your child unconditionally

Remind kids that you love them and will do everything you can to help them through this difficult time. Reassure them that you are there if they ever need to talk and will listen without judgement.


Don't

Do not asassume your child is too young or too male to be affected by an eating disorder

Eating disorders are affecting girls and boys as young as 5 years old. Even at this young age, kids are being inundated with negative messages about their bodies from the media and society. As their parents, our positive messages need to be louder. Be the best role model you can be by letting your child see you appreciate and respect your own body, so they can learn that it is okay to love and respect their own.

Do not try to trick kids

If you are worried that your children may be being too restrictive with their food, it could become tempting to try to hide extra calories in their food or mislead them when it comes to certain ingredients they may be eating. But this is never a good idea. If they should find out the truth, they could feel betrayed and begin questioning everything you say or do from that point on. If we want to be able to trust our kids, we need to prove to them that we can be trusted as well.

Do not miss the possible physical and psychological signs of an eating disorder

It is important to be aware of a few red flags that may indicate that a problem could be brewing. Some of the physical signs to look for include sudden weight loss or gain, hair loss, insomnia or excessive sleeping, pale skin, loss of menstrual cycle, headaches and chronic sore throat. Several psychological symptoms include depression, mood swings, an obsession with calorie counting, a need to weigh and measure everything they eat, loss of interest in hobbies and hanging out with their friends, hoarding or sneaking food and/or weighing themselves frequently, while never being satisfied with the result.

Do not be afraid of your child getting mad at you

If you suspect that your children may be struggling with food or body image issues, talk to them about it. Kids don’t always feel like discussing their problems right away, but just knowing that you are interested and concerned about them goes a long way. Many teenagers recall that while it felt a bit frustrating when their parents would check in with them about how they were feeling and what was going on in their lives with their friends, school or work, they also shared that it made them feel a comforting sense of security. So don’t worry if your daughter or son rolls their eyes every time you show an interest in their lives, they actually kind of like it.

Do not blame yourself for your child’s eating disorder

It is not your fault. Most parents really do want the very best for their kids, but despite their best efforts, will not be able to shield them from every bad situation that comes their way. Eating disorders are complex. Don’t waste time or energy on feeling guilty about your child’s struggles when you could be spending it supporting and encouraging them to get healthy. All we can do as parents is love our kids the best way we know how.


Summary
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Any child can find themselves dealing with the challenges of body image or eating disorder issues. It is vital for parents to understand what they are dealing with, so they can feel comfortable and confident in taking the steps necessary in finding them help. Keep the lines of communication open and reach out for help when needed. Eating disorders are tough, but we are tougher.


More expert advice about Kids with Eating Disorders

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Marci Warhaft-NadlerBody Image advocate, author and public speaker

Twenty years as a fitness professional, mother of two, author of “The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents: Helping Toddlers, Tweens and Teens Thrive”...

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