Growing up is a time filled with uncertainty and angst. “Did I pass the test?” “Does he or she like me?” “Will I make the team?” Unfortunately, that feeling of being out of control can sometimes contribute to attempts of controlling something within their power– their diet.
Today, children as young as fourth grade are becoming concerned with calories and fat content and are subjected to emotional bullying about their appearance. Because of this, they become highly aware of their body, environment, behaviors and eating habits. The new focus on their appearance and lifestyle may cause some children to start withdrawing, avoiding mealtime and finding it difficult to relate to those who do not view food or activity in the same way. Many parents find they are not only worried about their child’s health, but feel they have lost their child emotionally. An eating disorder can affect one’s ability to participate in day-to-day activities with friends and family.
Warning signs for parents
In general, behavior and attitude will indicate that weight loss, dieting and control of food consumption are becoming primary focuses for the child. Basic indicators of an eating disorder include:
- Binge eating: Larger than normal quantities of food disappear. Wrappers or containers indicating large amounts of food was consumed.
- Purging: Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals. Signs/smells of vomiting. Laxative/diuretic packages.
- Excessive exercise: Exercise is used to burn off calories consumed.
- Dental issues: Discoloration or staining of the teeth.
- Withdrawal: Specifically to make space for rituals of binge and purge sessions.
- Dramatic weight loss: Significant weight loss is observed. Frequent comments about feeling “FAT”
- Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams and dieting: Food rituals or food controlling behavior, restricting.
- Avoiding mealtimes: Excuses to avoid situations involving food
If you start to notice these behaviors in your child, there may be a more serious problem. Eating Disorders affect not only the physical, but the mental health of those who suffer from them.
Complex and challenging disorder
It is the combination of physical and emotional well-being that can make eating disorders especially complex to treat in children. Thus, close monitoring and treatment with a multidisciplinary team of physicians, psychologists, dieticians, and therapists is needed to ensure wellness. Many children and adolescents with eating disorders suffer from a co-occurring obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety disorders, where they are likely to focus on a thought pattern that compares them to others in a negative light.
Group therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are used to help patients recognize and change these negative thought patterns. In a group therapy setting, they are able to see how their behavior looks from the outside and begin to recognize it internally.
Many treatment programs continually monitor patients to pinpoint their diagnosis and manage any other medical issues common to eating disorders. Often patients develop symptoms that affect their gastrointestinal system, bones, heart or limit their physical activity. However, as nutritional intake is increased, patients develop the ability to understand their situation and separate themselves from their disorder. Consequentially, they are able to express themselves in a healthier way.
Knowing they’re not alone
In addition to therapy, another effective tool for treating children and adolescents with eating disorders is to be in a program with others their age. This way, patients gain support from their peers and those that have first-person experience with eating disorders similar to their own.
One of the biggest struggles for patients in treatment for eating disorders is mealtime. Most treatment programs have supervised mealtimes with trained dietitians who observe which issues patients may struggle with. The dieticians and staff also ensure that patients are eating the right food and the appropriate amount.
Another critical portion of comprehensive treatment is the education and involvement of the patient’s family. When the family members understand what the patient is working through and how they are doing so, they can provide a strong support system and assist in moving the recovery process along. Commonly programs will involve families in components of treatment to reinforce the support. For example, a family can bring food in for a meal period to have everyone eat together. This creates the habit of setting aside time for meals together, rather than avoiding them. This can also help the patient feel more at ease during mealtime, a stressful event. Activities such as this encourage the family to participate in the recovery process and improve communication between them and the patient.
Eating disorders affect not only your physical wellbeing, but also your mental health.
Eric A. Storch, PhD, a University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine professor and clinical director of Rogers Behavioral Health–Tampa Bay. If you have noticed any indicators in your child’s behavior or are concerned they are developing an eating disorder, contact Rogers Behavioral Health – Tampa Bay at www.rogersbh.org or call us at 844-220-4411.