When a friend or family member is diagnosed with an eating disorder, it’s often terrifying and confusing. How did this happen to our family? Is my child going to be okay? It’s all too easy to get tangled in these questions and become mentally trapped, paralyzed with fear and unable to help yourself — or your loved one.
Helping your child recover from an eating disorder will take a lot of work from everyone involved. As with many jobs, having the right tools is crucial. Eating disorders have a steep learning curve, and you and your family member will need to develop lots of tools to work towards recovery.
For parents to look out for:
Physical Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder
- Noticeable fluctuations in weight, both up and down
- Stomach cramps, other non-specific gastrointestinal complaints (constipation, acid reflux, etc.)
- Menstrual irregularities — missing periods or only having a period while on hormonal contraceptives (this is not considered a “true” period)
- Difficulties concentrating
- Abnormal laboratory findings (anemia, low thyroid and hormone levels, low potassium, low blood cell counts, slow heart rate)
- Dizziness/ Fainting
- Feeling cold all the time
- Sleep problems
- Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints (a result of inducing vomiting)
- Dental problems, such as enamel erosion, cavities, and tooth sensitivity
- Dry skin
- Dry and brittle nails
- Swelling around area of salivary glands
- Fine hair on body
- Thinning of hair on head, dry and brittle hair (lanugo)
- Cavities, or discoloration of teeth, from vomiting
- Muscle weakness
- Yellow skin (in context of eating large amounts of carrots)
- Cold, mottled hands and feet or swelling of feet
- Poor wound healing
- Impaired immune functioning
Encouraging Your Child to Seek Treatment
The following advice presumes that the situation is not immediately life-threatening. If you are unsure, seek immediate emergency medical care at your closest ER. .
Eating disorders can be fraught with secrecy and shame for sufferer and family alike. Many with eating disorders will deny they have a problem. Sometimes they are embarrassed and ashamed of their behaviours. Other people are afraid that if they admit they have a problem, they will have to stop their eating disorder behaviours, which can be extremely frightening and anxiety-provoking. Still other sufferers truly do not believe they have a problem and can be extremely reluctant to seek treatment.
Despite this, many sufferers later say that they were ultimately glad when someone stepped in and encouraged them to seek treatment. Often sufferers desperately want to get well, even as they are ambivalent about giving up eating disorder behaviours.
As a parent, it can be tempting to believe your child when they insist that they are fine. But when it comes to an eating disorder, your child may not always be the best judge of their physical and mental state. By insisting on a thorough evaluation by an eating disorder expert, the worst thing that can happen is you find out you made a big deal out of nothing.
Clear both of your schedules and set up a quiet place to talk.
The goal of this discussion should be to express your concerns to your child and to explain any steps you might be taking (e.g. setting up a doctor’s appointment or requesting they get evaluated for a possible eating disorder). Don’t worry about convincing them they have a problem. What you need to do as a parent won’t necessarily depend on their ability to believe there is something wrong.
Be calm, caring, and non-judgmental. Express your observations with minimal emotion and use specifics. Try using a formula like “I am concerned when I see you running to the bathroom after dinner.” Share your concerns about other changes you may have noticed, such as an increase in depression, anxiety, or isolation.
Be prepared for denial and anger.
Many eating disorder sufferers feel threatened or exposed when someone confronts them about their behaviour. Not infrequently, they react with denial and anger. Don’t take this personally. It isn’t because you didn’t do a good job talking to them, but because they are likely very afraid and uncertain. Try to stay off of their emotional wave as best you can. Your ability to stay calm and tolerate their distress is one of the most powerful tools you can muster against their eating disorder.
Don’t expect insight or buy-in.
Your child may be one of those with an eating disorder who can recognize that something is wrong and expresses a willingness to participate in treatment. If so, great! If not, don’t worry. It’s normal for a young person with an eating disorder to have limited insight into the seriousness of their illness. It doesn’t mean they won’t get better. Sometimes insight doesn’t happen until long into recovery.
Stay focused on what you need to do.
One of the biggest gifts you can give your child is to stay focused on their long-term needs and their health. Even if they don’t think it’s necessary, insist on a medical check-up and evaluation by an eating disorder expert. Go to the appointment with your child if you can. If not, make sure the physician knows ahead of time about your concerns and potential tests to run. Also require that your child sign all waivers and forms so that you can speak directly to their medical providers. The age at which this happens varies by state: in some places, the age is 18, but it can be as young as 13.
Seek support and understanding.
Both parents and child need an enormous amount of support to get through this. This might come in the form of books, online forums, healthcare professionals or someone who has previously suffered. Take the time to learn about eating disorders and find out how you can encourage healing.
Seek a second opinion.
Not all eating disorder treatment providers are created equal. There are no rules as to who can call themselves an expert at treating eating disorders. Talk to several therapists and physicians until you find one you can feel confident will treat your child well. Get several ideas about treatment options and determine which one will work best for your child and family.
Remind your child that life will be there after recovery.
Taking time off of school , college or university can seem like a deal-breaker to many young people. What can be hard to realize in the moment is that school and life will still be waiting after they are more stable in their recovery. Plenty of people can seek treatment for their eating disorder with minimal disruption in their life, but others need more intensive support. When making your decisions about treatment, remember that recovery comes first. Everything else can wait.
Take heart . recovery is possible.
society tells us that one lives with an eating disorder forever. The truth is that many women find complete healing after an eating disorder and go on to live full and healthy lives. with the right treatment and support, your child can overcome this.