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Does Your Child Have an Eating Disorder? 8 Warning Signs

Warning Signs Your Child or Teen May be Dealing with an Eating Disorder

by Elizabeth Easton, PsyD

Previously, it was believed that eating disorders were “a teenage girl’s” disease. However, this is no longer the case. More men and boys, as well as younger and younger children, are seeking treatment for eating disorders and concerns.

About 35-37% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, or take diet pills or laxatives, reports the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Even more frightening is the fact that 42% of first- through third-grade girls say that they want to be thinner. That’s right, while learning multiplication tables and tallying money, kids are now consumed with counting calories.

These facts are shocking, and still, many people — and parents — are unaware of how prevalent and serious eating disorders are for young children, tweens and teenagers. Parents have a crucial role in educating themselves about eating disorders and body image issues and identifying possible warning signs, which could indicate the presence of an eating disorder in their child or adolescent.

Here are some of the most common warning signs that a child or teen potentially has an eating disorder.

  1. Dramatic weight loss or drastic fluctuations

  2. A preoccupation with weight, food, food labels and dieting

  3. Excessive drinking of fluids or denial of hunger

  4. Avoidance of meal times and situations involving food

  5. Withdrawal from friends and activities

  6. Self-induced vomiting or abuse of laxatives, diuretics or diet pills

  7. Excessive, rigid exercise regimen

  8. A change in dress, such as over-sized clothing to cover the body or revealing clothes to flaunt weight loss

As a parent, if you become concerned about your child’s eating behaviors or extreme focus on body image, it is important to address the issue early on. Intervene sooner rather than later, andhelp your child seek treatment and experience lasting recovery if you and your doctors deem it appropriate. If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, your immediate focus should be his or her health, opening lines of communication and initiating a conversation.

Here is how you can start.

  1. Avoid making accusations. Rather than suggesting your child’s eating habits may be worrisome, ask direct questions. For example, “I’ve noticed you haven’t been eating dessert lately. Is there a reason you’re doing that?”

  2. Be supportive. Emphasize that your child is not in trouble, but that you are concerned and want to be there for support.

  3. Be firm. If you are worried about your child’s health to the point he or she needs to see a doctor, tell your child what is going to happen. For example, “This morning, we’re going to talk to a doctor about your health.”

  4. Seek qualified resources. Your family’s physician, your child’s pediatrician or a local eating disorders treatment center can provide useful information to help you better understand eating disorders and to help you determine the most appropriate treatment option for your child.

If your child does develop an eating disorder, try not to shoulder the blame yourself. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses stemming from a variety of contributing factors; they are not any one person’s – or parent’s – fault. Being able to recognize the warning signs and be an active part of eating disorders treatment will help provide an environment conducive to the recovery process.

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