Further complicating the return to school, social media creates pressure driven through false gratification derived from comparing body image and popularity. Bullying, a form of intimidation that drives social pressure through threat of harm, greatly informs negative self-image and fear based thoughts.
Eating disorders typically start with the appearance of controlling food and weight but, as parents quickly learn with professional help, their young loved one may be monitoring food intake and weight in order to cover for overwhelming feelings and emotions. Binging, purging and excessive exercise many be an avenue to handle painful emotions yet they are tools that quickly unravel as dangerous lifestyle choices.
According to one study, 42% of all first through third grade girls want to be thinner [Collins, M.E. (1991). Body figure perceptions and preferences among pre-adolescent children. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 199-208]. This drive to manipulate weight is further complicated by the nearly 40-50% of adolescent girls who engage in crash dieting, laxatives, fasting, and self-induced vomiting, according to many researchers. Interventions and support can help a person to learn how to stop these patterns. It is critical that parents continue to be involved with their loved one, even if they go into therapy or treatment.
Parents often wonder what the best parenting style is for helping their child with issues related to food, body image and self-esteem. Parents will ask, “What makes the eating disorder worse, to ignore it or to stay on top of it?” Parent’s worry they will cause the eating disorder to worsen by ignoring it or that by acknowledging the strange food rituals, the eating disorder will worsen.
However, many parents report, children and young adults who are driven to perform well in school also put tremendous pressure on themselves to be “perfect.” As such, these same parents confirm, “No one is harder on my child than she is on herself when she feels she is not perfect.” At that point, “I simply try to let her know that she tried her best and will have another opportunity in the future.”
A form of intervention, called targeted prevention, is geared at people who have high levels of body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and are beginning to show signs of an eating disorder. This method has been used as a deterrent to the full-blown development of a serious eating disorder. As such, early proper education and therapy from eating disorder professionals, for family members as well as the identified client, may help to interrupt the onset of an eating disorder in adolescents.
Scientist and researchers who specialize in eating disorders have identified the complicated nature of eating disorders as a combination of biological, social, emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral factors. And since transitions and change can be difficult for people struggling with an eating disorder, the start of a new school year creates a perfect storm where all of these factors can be stimulated as an influence to use food as a coping mechanism.
Parents may notice any combination of these warning signs in their student’s behavior:
- Unexpected changes in activities
- Stomach aches or head aches
- Inability to focus on school work
- Shifts in sleep patterns
- Feeling depressed
- Pressure to be thinner based on media
- Stress to look like certain high profile personalities
- Hatred for the shape and size of their body
- Consistently talking about how “fat” they are
- Wanting to lose weight even though they are thin
- Reporting multiple troubled relationships that were once enjoyable
- Lack of satisfaction or always reporting being “bored”
- Increased teasing at school or on the bus
- A change in dress that is too mature for their age
- More time spent alone or more time spent in the bathroom
- Excessively counting calories, carbohydrates or fats
- Refusing to eat with the family
- Isolating from events that have food
- No longer going to events they once enjoyed
- Reporting a desire for plastic surgery to change or enhance their body
- Stealing or hiding food
- Excessive worrying or newly formed fears
- Baggy or tight clothes
- Swollen cheeks
How Parents Can Help:
- Do not ignore the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder in hopes that it will go away
- Let your loved one know that you care about them and want to help
- Listen to and honor their feelings
- Continue to make time for family style meals
- Allow your child to accept their limitations
- Support their successes
- Create snacks and meals for your child to take to school, so they do not have to restrict food intake that later reinforces binge eating
- Be open about the family issues or stressors
- Praise them for beauty that is beyond skin deep
- Support a healthy body image that is nurtured by accomplishments, not by looks alone
- Help them to create a reasonable schedule that includes enough sleep, balanced meals, social time, study time and family time
- Limit social media
- Support healthy hobbies such as music, writing, art, animals or helping with chores
- Reinforce family values that may include spiritual practices, religious gatherings and community events
Families with a loved one previously in eating disorder treatment may find this time particularly frustrating since the collective family hope is “everyone will move on and be healthy again.” Equally as challenging, families who experience a loved one with first time eating disorder symptoms may also be hopeful that everyone will improve on their own.
Both family scenarios can be a time to reach out to a professional for an eating disorder assessment and recommendation. Remember that neither you as a parent, your family, nor your loved one have failed if you need professional advisement. This may be an opportunity where your family, as well as your loved one with an eating disorder, learns skills to grow stronger after a stressful time. Recovery is a team effort created by professionals, family, teachers and advisors to the family.
We Can Help
Many schools and universities have resources to assist students including awareness campaigns, eating disorder-related programs, and trained staff to help recognize students with eating disorders and those at risk for developing an issue. Once an eating disorder has been identified, it is crucial to seek treatment. The Meadows Ranch has been treating eating disorders for more than 20 years. We know recovery is possible. Based on feedback from patients, families and professionals, the vast majority of our patients remain committed to a life of health, balance and purpose. For additional information about the treatment of eating disorders, please call to speak to a Counselor at 866-390-5100 or complete a form, and we will contact you with the information you need.
About the Author
Libby Neal, MA, LPC, is in private practice on the western slope of Colorado. Specializing in eating disorders and trauma, Libby utilizes psychodynamic therapy, evidence-based practices, equine assisted therapy and art therapy. Libby has fifteen years of experience with eating disorders working as a clinician, administrator and educator.