It's a discussion that strikes fear in the hearts of most parents – adolescents expressing concern about their weight. According to statistics, 1 out of every 100 girls, between the ages of 10 and 20, struggles with anorexia and four percent of college-aged women have bulimia. So how can parents distinguish between normal adolescent insecurities and the start of a dangerous eating disorder?
"The most important thing a parent can do is listen," says Susan McClanahan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anorexia and bulimia. She also is an instructor in Psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School and co-founder of Insight Behavioral Health Centers.
"Early intervention is extremely important in the treatment of this disease," says Dr. McClanahan. "If you notice your teen focusing on body image and weight issues, it can be an early warning sign that it's time to get professional help."
Here are some behaviors Dr. McClanahan says may signal a child in the early stages of an eating disorder:
- Talking about feeling "fat," criticizing their looks, avoiding situations where they would show their body (such as wearing a bathing suit).
- Dieting, especially with significant weight fluctuation. Early dieting is associated with later development of eating disorders.
- Your child starts restricting what is acceptable. First they want to be vegetarian, then vegan, then gluten-free. They may seem obsessed with only eating "healthy" foods.
- Hiding or hoarding food, or food going missing
- Your child refusing to eat in front of you
- Personality changes, such as becoming withdrawn, easily angered, or unable to concentrate
- Wearing baggy clothing, or clothing inappropriate for the season (long sleeves on a hot day)
- An increased desire to exercise with an increase in the amount of exercise, exercising at the expense of social activities or school work, becoming anxious or angry when unable to exercise, or compensating for eating "bad" foods by overexercising
- Evidence of purging or efforts to compensate for overeating or eating "forbidden" foods, such as vomiting, or use of diet pills, diuretics, enemas, and laxatives
"If a child is exhibiting any of these behaviors, parents should start a conversation emphasizing their concern for health and wellbeing," says Dr. McClanahan. "Don't be afraid to seek professional help. Eating disorders are very complex and tough to navigate without a trained therapist."
Insight Behavioral Health Centers