This week, 26th February to 4th March 2018, marks Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Many thousands of children living in the United Kingdom are currently dealing with an eating disorder, and a lot of these children are undiagnosed.
National charity Beat Eating Disorders is raising awareness of eating disorders by hosting the Sock It to Eating Disorders fundraising event, which calls on schools, workplaces and individuals to join in with the campaign by wearing their ‘brightest, boldest socks’ for the week and getting as many people as possible involved by using the hashtag #SockItToEatingDisorders on social media. You can find out more information about how to get involved in the event on their website.
According to a study carried out by University College London, around 1 in every 100,000 children under the age of 13 living in Britain has some sort of eating disorder. This figure is suspected by experts to be an underestimation, with many individuals who suffer with an eating disorder suffering alone without seeking help from support services.
It can be worrying as a parent to notice signs of an eating disorder in your child. However, there are many support networks available to help your child to overcome their disorder, and to support the whole family through the process. Please see the end of this article for a list of useful contacts.
There are many warning signs that a child is suffering from an eating disorder. You may notice some of these signs quite frequently, whereas others can be much more difficult to detect.
Behavioural changes are often the first noticeable feature of a developing eating disorder. Some behavioural warning signs to look out for include:
- A sudden change in style, particularly wearing baggy clothing
- Avoiding social situations where food is involved
- A sudden obsession with body weight and shape
- Being deceptive with food, for example binge-eating in secret or throwing away food when nobody is looking
- Denial of hunger
- Compulsive behaviour surrounding exercise and excessive dieting
- Replacing meals with drinks
You may also notice some of the following physical warning signs in a child dealing with an eating disorder:
- Missed periods or irregular periods in females
- Fainting or dizziness
- Sudden or fast weight loss
- Constant fatigue and lethargy
- Swollen cheeks and/or jawline, damage to teeth, red pinprick marks on face (signs of frequent vomiting)
Eating disorders can place a great amount of stress on an individual’s mental health. As a result, you might find that a child dealing with an eating disorder often displays the following psychological warning signs, many of which may only be noticeable through general conversation or frequent observation of your child:
- Mood swings and irritability
- Expressing that they are afraid of gaining weight
- Rigid thinking/black and white thinking (everything is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’)
- Distorted perception of self and warped body image (insisting they are fat when they are actually a healthy weight)
- Feelings of lack of control over life, or a fear of adult responsibility
It can be hugely difficult to approach the topic of eating disorders with a child who you suspect may be dealing with an eating disorder. It is important to remember that eating disorders are a very serious issue, and it is not a case of telling a child to just get over it and start eating normally. When it comes to sitting down and talking about the issue, you should tread cautiously and try not to make your child feel like the eating disorder is their fault. Instead, concentrate on what they are telling you and listen to how they are feeling. This requires a lot of patience and may throw you out of your comfort zone. Remind yourself that this is only your natural reaction as a parent or carer, and that you need to stay calm and prepared in order to see the best results for your child.
Another important thing to consider is that children suffering from eating disorders can be very sensitive about their appearance, especially so when other people comment on how they look. Try to refrain from talking to your child about their appearance, even if your words are intended as a compliment. It is better to not comment on your child’s appearance at all if they are experiencing an eating disorder, to avoid misperceptions that might cause more hurt.
If you are thinking of approaching the topic of eating disorders with your child, it is always best to seek advice, research thoroughly, and plan out what you are going to say to them before you begin talking. Having a clear idea of where you want the conversation to go and how you are going to remain calm while discussing the issue will prevent you from getting carried away with your emotions (remember, this is a very emotional subject for both of you). Planning what you want to say will help you to make the discussion run smoothly and in the right direction, with less risk of causing offence or upset.
Remind yourself not to be too disheartened if your first attempt at talking to your child does not provide great results. If your child is suffering from an eating disorder, their go-to reaction will likely be to act secretive. This is not your fault, and it does not mean that they do not trust you; it is a response that is happening because of their illness. Approaching the topic without judgement, and reassuring your child that you are here to help whenever they’re ready to receive it, will reassure them that they can open up to you. This could take time, but it is important not to start pestering or getting angry if your desired response doesn’t happen immediately. You are both taking a big leap here.
Most importantly, if your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder and is referred for treatment, do not forget that your role is just as important as any professional’s in aiding your child’s recovery. Love and support goes a long way, particularly when the message is reinforced often. Take the time to understand what your child is going through by learning as much as possible about their disorder, and build their confidence on their road to recovery by offering praise and congratulations for all achievements—no matter how small.
It is also really crucial to remember to find support for yourself at a time like this. It isn’t easy to deal with a child who is experiencing an eating disorder, but there are many resources available for both of you to make use of, which offer emotional and educational support whenever you need it.
For more information about dealing with children and teenagers who are living with an eating disorder, visit this advice page on the NHS website.
Useful Contacts for Eating Disorders