Unless an illness has impacted your family directly, you are probably unaware that February’s final week serves to bring attention to people who suffer from eating disorders and their often heartbroken family members who suffer from the sidelines. The stereotype around those who experience disordered eating and/or full-blown eating disorders has all but vanished. Now it is widely accepted that eating disorders can affect any family, regardless of one’s gender, race, family history, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or age.
Much like many other illnesses and disorders, the sooner people seek treatment, the better their chances of beating the disorder. Unfortunately, the rate of eating disorders for children under the age of twelve has been on a steady rise. This is why it is so crucial for parents to recognize the earliest signs of a potential issue with food and exercise.
- A child or teen in the early stages of disordered eating may suddenly become preoccupied with food, specifically its nutrients, calorie count, or fat content. Children who ask about serving size, nutrition labels, and total calories are sometimes searching for reasons not to eat that meal, snack, or treat. If they are told about the amount of butter, fat, or calories in something, the information is likely then used to justify avoiding eating it.
- A similar preoccupation with eating could revolve around eating times and schedules, amounts eaten, and a desire to isolate oneself when eating. For many sufferers of anorexia nervosa, regimented, unfaltering control becomes a huge aspect of the disorder. Children and teens will perhaps begin eating alone in their room, or asking if they can finish their meal alone upstairs.
- Because secrecy and embarrassment often coincide with the disorder, children may sneak food off of their plate, spread it out to appear as though they have eaten more of it, or cut everything into tiny bites, eating painstakingly slowly. At school, children may skip lunch altogether or throw out packed lunches. Parents with concerns should keep an eye on the lunch account to see if lunch is being purchased each day. They can also contact school staff or counselors to check in and see if their child is actually consuming food during school lunch.
- Another method for maintaining secrecy is to stash or hoard food away in hiding spots. If parents have suspicions that meals are not being consumed, they should check for hidden or thrown out food. Food odors may also give away a child’s habit if forgotten under the bed or in the closet. Very resourceful children and teens may flush the uneaten food to avoid probing questions as well. Parents should monitor bathroom use during and after meals if they suspect something is wrong.
- Children and teens who are attempting to drop weight may start exercising excessively or at odd times of day. Some, in an effort to hide the habit, might do jumping jacks or crunches for hours in the middle of the night to avoid suspicions.
- Once weight begins to drop, choice of clothing might change as well. Parents often report baggier options being used to conceal the rapid weight loss. Additionally, eating disorders can eventually lead to a lower body temperature, causing a child to complain of being cold more often. Also, in an effort to warm the body, sudden hair growth is common among sufferers.
If any of these signs are apparent, it may be time to seek help for your child or teen. Being aware of the symptoms, and the stigma that often accompany them, can be helpful when offering support and taking next steps for treatment.