Eating disorders are incredibly common in this day and age. Unfortunately very few people would recognise one, even if it jumped up and bit them on the proverbial. Unless you actually know what to look for, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll spot a problem in its infancy. This is where parents run into trouble. Sadly, by the time eating disorders have taken hold, there are no easy solutions.
People assume that the number one sign of disordered eating is weight loss. They wrongly assume that they’d notice it straight away. Unfortunately, by the time weight loss becomes obvious, eating disorders are well advanced. Sometimes even life threatening. It’s impossible to know what strain somebody’s internal organs are under just by looking at them. Does this mean you shouldn’t watch for weight loss? Of course not! What it does mean though, is that you need more information.
Here is a list of things to watch for. Written by someone who learnt the hard way.
People developing, or in the grips of an eating disorder will have a million and one excuses not to eat. They’ve just eaten, they’re not hungry, they feel sick, they’re intolerant / allergic and more, but these are the most common. They’ll carefully swap them around to avoid drawing unwanted attention to their problem. They will never use the same excuse twice in a row. If someone close to you avoids eating regularly, look into it very carefully. Watch for a pattern, and keep a diary. It will be subtle, so writing it down could be what helps you join all the dots.
They want to be healthy
What parent would see “being healthy” as a problem? None! Most parents would be gleeful at the thought of their teen pursuing health. The trouble with that is – contrary to popular belief – health is where many eating disorders begin. Your teen may start reading up on healthy food, or exercising more. Those things can be totally harmless, but they can also be where eating disorders claw their way into your home. Does this mean you should discourage healthy eating, an interest in health or exercise? Of course not! But once again, watch closely for patterns. Watch for obsessive behaviours. Keep a diary of anything that you notice, no matter how minor it appears from the outside.
It’s unlikely to be the troublemakers
You can easily be lulled into a false sense of security by a non rebellious teen. One who does all their homework, studies hard, doesn’t get into trouble with the opposite sex, drugs or skipping school. Teens are biologically driven to rebel. Some will do it by partying and wearing funky clothes. Others by choosing behaviours that lead to eating disorders. It’s a common myth that people with eating disorders are stupid. The truth is anyone can fall victim to one, and smart kids who are keen to please are at risk. If you’re not used to rebellion, it’s unlikely you’d bat an eyelid at an increased interest in “health”. Why would you? Health isn’t crack cocaine, no one ever fell pregnant by having a relationship with health.
Restriction doesn’t mean they stop eating altogether. It would be blatantly obvious if that were the case wouldn’t it! It would be almost impossible for eating disorders to get established because parents would intervene. Restricting food means avoiding certain foods or food groups. For many teens, their eating disorder begins with gluten avoidance. Tell any support group for mothers of ED teens and they’ll all nod in unison. Gluten intolerance is a really common place for it to start. It branches out into dairy intolerance, then before you know it they’re a raw vegan who only eats three vegetables. If your teen has recently announced that they’re intolerant to certain foods, see a doctor and request blood tests. Should they be genuinely intolerant you don’t want to force discomfort upon them. If they’re not intolerant, you need to know why they think the are.
Have you noticed that certain foods are suddenly vanishing from your pantry? Other foods they previously enjoyed are now totally off the menu? Of course, this can be normal – which once again highlights the insidious nature of eating disorders. Watch for a pattern, a more intense set of food behaviours, an obsession. It’s about an inability to stop obsessing, and a sense of urgency to fulfil certain nutritional quotas. Someone with an eating disorder will have extreme anxiety when the “right food” isn’t available, or when other foods are served. If the wrong foods are set before someone with an eating disorder they suddenly pull out all the excuses. Not hungry, already ate, feeling sick. However if you present them with the foods they are obsessing over they’ll virtually inhale them.
They Still Eat
They what? People with eating disorders DON’T eat, that’s how you know they have one. False! Totally false. If you remember nothing more of what you read here, remember this. Everyone eats. If they don’t they die. People with eating disorders eat, they just make it into a performance rather than a normal meal. They’ll push the food around their plate and rearrange it so it looks like they’ve eaten more than they have. They’ll eat the foods they’re obsessed with, perhaps in vast quantities. Regular meals won’t really be regular, but you’ll see them eating. When someone with an eating disorder refuses food entirely they’ve probably been battling it for a very long time. They’ll be in hospital being tube fed against their will. This horrifying stage of the illness had to begin somewhere.
Routine and Secrecy
Someone who is developing an eating disorder often follows strict guidelines about when they can eat. You may notice them getting out of bed very early and preparing breakfast. They may announce that they’re going to eat in their bedrooms instead of with the family. They may refuse to eat dinner if it’s past a certain hour in the day. All these things need to be recorded because as you should be aware by now, on their own they may mean nothing. When they start to form a pattern it’s a problem.
They Talk About Hunger
It’s normal to talk about hunger, and if someone isn’t eating properly they’re going to be very hungry. So they’ll talk about being hungry just like everyone else. A part of this is to maintain the facade of eating enough, but it’s also because they’re really really hungry! Watch for an increase in water consumption too. If someone isn’t eating enough to satisfy their needs they get hungry. Drinking excess water fills their stomach and can help stave off hunger. Sometimes they chew on lozenges or gum to distract them from feeling hungry.
Strange Bathroom Habits
There’s a few of these. Bathrooms can play a central role in eating disorders. Pay particular attention to what your teen does after eating. Do they go straight to the toilet after every meal? If so they could be purging. Other bathroom antics include weighing themselves all the time. To see if you teen is doing this you can either remove the scales from the bathroom and watch for a reaction. Alternatively you can get creative. Try putting something small and insignificant on the scales. Maybe a piece of dental floss or a cotton ball. Remember exactly where you put it, photography can be handy. Does it stay in the same spot or move? If it’s being moved the odds are good that the scales are being used more regularly than necessary.
Mothering a teenager is hard work, whether or not yours is rebellious, there are always challenges. Eating disorders are growing in prevalence, and there are a million reasons for this. We could argue all day and night about what they are, but that wouldn’t help the mothers whose teens are slipping away unseen. Eating disorders are dangerous, they are covert, and they are a living hell for both the carer and the sufferer. Raising awareness is vital. An early diagnosis increases the chances of survival significantly. If you suspect that your teen has a problem with food please seek help immediately. It’s much better to be told that you’re worrying over nothing, than that your teen has anorexia.*
*It’s important to remember that doctors are notoriously bad at diagnosing eating disorders. Should you encounter one who doesn’t take your concerns seriously, find another one.
FOR FURTHER READING
Yes, She Still Has An Eating Disorder