February is Eating Disorders Awareness Month, and as good a time as any for parents to be mindful of the problem. Eating disorders like bulimia, anorexia and EDNOS are increasingly setting in at a younger age, with research suggesting that 80% of 10-year-old girls have already dieted at least once, and 70% of 6-to-12 year old girls would like to lose weight. So how can you spot an eating disorder, and get your kid the help they need, before the problem becomes severe? The New York Times shares a list of warning signs for parents, with the help of Dr. Jennifer Hagman, medical director of Children’s Hospital Colorado Eating Disorder Program, and former patient Madi O’Dell:
Watch for little changes in energy levels or appetite. “I was weak. I was tired,” says O’Dell, a college freshman and soccer player, whose battle with eating disorders began in high school. “I had shin splints, I got sprains, I couldn’t run as far,” she explains.
Listen to what your kids are saying. Hagman says talking about counting calories, dieting or avoiding fat could be signs that a kid is thinking negatively about their body.
Schedule meals as a family. “It was easy for me to hide that I wasn’t eating because I was so busy,” says O’Dell. “It was normal to eat in the car, it was normal to eat on the road.” Sitting down to eat as a family may prevent teens from using the excuse that they already ate somewhere else.
Notice new food obsessions. O’Dell says she became determined to avoid “bad” foods after a visit to the nutritionist. Teens struggling with eating disorders will often binge on a limited selection of food, or will make a point of avoiding certain foods.
Trust your instincts. “Parents do notice,” says Hagman. “They just don’t know what they’re noticing.” If you’re spending less on groceries or noticing physical changes in your kids, speak up. “Ask what’s happening,” Hagman says. “Don’t be afraid to talk. Sometimes teenagers will say, ‘No one noticed anything, so I thought I must be fine.’ Notice. Open the door to the conversation.”
Keep talking. Ask your child about meals and what they think about certain foods. “Ask about their friends,” Hagman suggests. “Friends are often the first to know that another teenager has a problem.” And talking about friends can often be easier than talking about themselves, while still getting parental advice. “And talk about yourself,” O’Dell adds. “Tell us how you feel instead of asking how we feel. It helps to feel like it goes both ways.”
For more information and resources on how to help a child struggling with an eating disorder, check out the following organizations:
National Eating Disorders Association, helpline: 1-800-931-2237