Eating disorders, I’ve come to find, are something many parents dont really even think about when it comes to their kids health and well-being.
Between broken arms, bad report cards and roof-raising jam sessions in the garage, parents have plenty to worry about as it is.
However, in the US alone, 220 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their lives.
Also,over 50 percent of teenage girls and 33 percent of teenage boys are using restrictive measures to lose weight at any given time.
Low numbers? Far from it.
When you throw in the little known fact that anorexia has the highest fatality rate of any mental illness with a 4 percent death toll of those affected, the issue at hand becomes even more real.
Not all teens who diet will go on to develop life-threatening eating disorders, but those who do will put themselves and their families through hell and back.
I suffered from a severe eating disorder from age 16 to 23, and I can speak to the toll it takes on a family. The insidious nature of the disease also makes it incredibly difficult to overcome.
If these statistics have done their job in taking off those rose-colored glasses, you might be wondering how on earth would one know if his or her kid falls into that alarming number mentioned above.
Luckily, as someone who’s been there, I can shed some much-needed light on the top four red flags to watch for when it comes to your own child:
1. Your child is avoiding foods or entire food groups.
Before I got seriously sick, this was a red flag my family missed time and time again, most likely attributing it to just normal teenage girl behavior.
While teenage girls do tend to get a bit more finicky, if you observe your child stray away from his or her known favorites, you should pay attention and watch a bit more closely.
If your child gradually begins avoiding more and more foods or cuts out entire food groups like starches or dairy, you should address this behavior.
The sooner you address this behavior, the bigger chance you have of nipping an eating disorder in the bud.
If and when you do try to address it, keep in mind that eating disorders are not actually about food.
Simply getting on your child’s case to eat more will do more harm than good.
More often than not, there is an underlying psychological cause that needs to be addressed and approached with care and caution.
Keep your own frustration out of it and hear your child out, no matter how what is said makes you feel.
Blowing up at him or her with a lecture is just about the worst move you can make at this point.
Afterwards, go punch a pillow if you must, and do some research.
Once you’re calm, plan out the next move for where you should go from there.
2. Your child is suddenly cold all the time, has lost a noticeable amount of weight and wears baggy clothing.
Noticeable weight loss as a red flag goes without saying, but many teens headed down a dangerous path will try to hide their shrinking bodies under oversized hoodies, bulky sweats and the like.
If your child doesn’t hide, but instead flaunts his or her rapid weight loss, this is a major red flag.
If your child is walking around shivering, and there are no known circulation issues to be blamed for it, you need to look closer as well.
Severely restricting food intake prevents the body from generating sufficient heat, which consequently requires the layers to be piled on to stay warm.
If you notice your teen’s wardrobe becoming increasingly bulky, it’s time to investigate further, not crank up the heater.
3. Your child makes frequent trips from the dinner table to the restroom.
Has your child started eating more than usual and then sneaking off to the restroom?
Since parents are generally happy to see their kid with a healthy appetite, the second part of the self-destructive equation often goes unnoticed.
Start paying attention if your child’s appetite suddenly spikes.
If two to three trips to the restroom mid-meal accompany that appetite spike, action needs to be taken ASAP.
Purging replaces that full feeling we’re used to after a good meal with a feeling of excessive hunger, as if you haven’t eaten all day long.
What exactly constitutes eating more than usual?
Second and third helpings are a good clue, especially if they’re taken after trips to the restroom.
Binging and purging is an extremely dangerous behavior that leads to (amongst a myriad of other things) electrolyte imbalances.
This can result in cardiac arrhythmia, cardiac arrest or even death.
Before rushing your child to the family doctor, make sure you notice this pattern occur more than just once.
4. You notice changes in your child’s mood and signs of depression.
Eating disorders come hand in hand with depression.
There’s just no way to starve yourself and still be happy.
Starving your body means starving your brain, and when your brain is deprived of what it needs to function, things start shifting off-balance at an impressive rate.
Like many teens who fall into the grips of anorexia or bulimia, before things got really bad, I believed losing weight would make me happier and more in control of my life.
Unfortunately, this is a lie that keeps sucking you in.
By the time you realize the opposite has happened, you’re in over your head and more miserable than ever.
If you notice your once cheerful and social child suddenly withdrawn and spending more and more time behind a locked bedroom door, something is off.
Depression is a serious matter in and of itself, but when you notice a combination of social withdrawal and abnormal eating patterns, action needs to be taken before things get worse.
If symptoms of depression and abnormal eating are also accompanied by noticeable weight loss, not another minute should be wasted before action is taken.
The longer an eating disorder brews, the more difficult it becomes to treat and cure.
5. Your child is taking fitness to extreme measures.
While exercise is good for you, all good things come in moderation.
When I was in the throes of my eating disorder, two daily trips to the gym were paired with a 10-mile walk, no matter the weather.
Rain, shine or freezing wind were weak obstacles on my path to “perfection.”
Toss in a diet of weight-loss pills, bingeing and purging, and it was quite the molotov cocktail ready to explode at any second and take me with it.
If your child suddenly becomes more and more active and the idea of skipping exercise for the day brings on a fit, then you likely have a problem.
If the gym starts replacing friendships and family gatherings, pay attention because this isn’t something to be ignored as moody teen behavior.
Exercise addiction is just like any other addiction, and it can severely impact your child’s health if taken too far.
It could damage the heart, or worse, result in sudden cardiac death.
These risks increase substantially if over-exercising is paired with any or all of the previously mentioned behaviors.
Acting quickly when you first notice behaviors that are out of the ordinary for your child will have a huge impact on the duration of the illness.
The quicker it’s caught, the better.
While these are just five major symptoms of an eating disorder, being able to catch any one of these will help you realize there is a problem much sooner than many parents unfortunately do.
Eating disorders caught early have the best chance for full recovery.
This early intervention can prevent years of struggle and save lives.
Keep in mind that food-related symptoms are only the surface symptoms to deeper psychological problems and will need to be addressed as such.
Getting angry or forcing your child to eat will only backfire and create distance between you and your child.
If your child does indeed have an eating disorder, the journey to recovery won’t be an easy one.
But as someone who struggled with and overcame a severe and long-term eating disorder, I stress that a full recovery is absolutely possible for everyone.
Keep alert, don’t dismiss questionable behaviors and act early, and your child will be better off for it.