Many young people struggle with eating issues long before parents realize it. Parents may find out in a myriad of ways:
- they may catch favorite foods being thrown away,
- they may hear vomiting through the bathroom door after meals,
- they may notice appetites dwindle to almost nothing,
- they may watch their child eat an excessively large portion of food rapidly followed by remorse,
- they may watch clothes hang baggy where they should fit,
- they may watch health class assignments become an obsession,
- they may hear self-body degradation habitually,
- they may see their child collapse at a sporting event,
- they may notice an absence of menstrual cycles,
- they may see screen focus on exercise or beauty models,
- they may watch a new food plan sabotage each meal (i.e. vegetarian, gluten/dairy free).
- They may not know until a professional tells them. While one of these symptoms may not equal an eating disorder, a combination of them may indicate food issues.
Regardless of how a parent finds out, fear is the common reaction. How can one not fear a disease with a higher mortality rate than some forms of cancer? Anorexia alone has the deadliest prognosis than any other mental health disorder. Doctors and therapists are often first contacts for scared parents. Unfortunately, most doctors and therapists have very little training in eating disorders. Unless your child is significantly underweight (which is not the case with bulimia), doctors can’t do much more than refer to a therapist and/or nutritionist (who also has little training in eating disorders) and monitor weight.
Therapists will do their best to help but they may or may not include the parents in the process, though it is they who are the ones actually motivated for change. Family involvement is crucial for recovery. Furthermore, while therapists may be upfront with their lack of training, they may still make recommendations (i.e. “Let them skip meals.”, “Let them drink their nutritional intake.” v. eat, “Give them more control.”). These recommendations may do more damage than good.
Clients with eating struggles will…
1.) Deny or minimize their issue to the therapist (“Mom is just overreacting. I eat everyday.”)
2.) Have no motivation to change.
One of the biggest challenges to eating disorders is the level of commitment the victims have to it. The malnourished brain does not allow them to accurately perceive their bodies or the danger of the situation. Young people are not talked out of eating issues.
Parents and Caregivers Can Make a Difference
Consequently, it is the caregivers who have to get actively involved. If you have concerns about your child struggling with eating issues…
1.) Find someone who specializes in eating disorders for young people.
There are different approaches to helping your child but they should always involve family because that is how change happens the fastest. If your child is an adult and doesn’t live at home, it can be harder to be involved. Use the influence you have available.
2.) Get support from trusted sources.
Be cautious of professionals blaming you. As parents, we may blame ourselves already but is that helpful? Science shows strong indications eating issues are genetic. And once a child is in the throws of an eating disorder, behaviors escalate as their brains become deprived of nutrients. Friends and extended family may not understand what is going and how it affects all the members of the household. Join an online support group.
3.) Educate yourself starting with the Parent Toolkit from the National Eating Disorder Association.
Dr. Laura Hill gives a presentation on what happens in the brain with anorexia. Ask for resources from the professionals.
What Can Family and Friends Do?
If you know a family struggling with eating issues:
1.) Pray for them. God is bigger than any mental health issue.
2.) Encourage getting professional specialized support. While God has the power to heal, He has given us resources we should not ignore.
3.) Listen. It’s one of the most loving things we can do. Parents going through this desperately need someone to listen without judgment.
4.) Offer to help with errands or babysit. When families are in treatment, appointments rule their lives. They do not get alone time. They barely have time to get groceries.
Question for Reflection:
Do you know of any other ways to support family’s struggling with eating issue? Feel free to post what you have seen help.
Portland, Oregon has several clinics that will assess your child’s level of need for support:
Kartini Clinic (also has an informative blog for parents)
Center for Discovery
* Special Note: all situations, quotes, and examples are from real-life parents.
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