Skip to main content
girl looking at apple

Eating Disorders: What Parents Should Know

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Karla P. Shelnutt, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida, and by Heidi Radunovich, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

This post is in honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

There’s no denying that it can be tough to parent a teenager. With all the things you know you should be aware of, you might find yourself with a running list of questions in your head. Who are those kids he’s hanging out with? Is she doing okay in school? Are things too serious with his girlfriend? And here’s a frightening one: Could she be developing an eating disorder?

Of course, parents are absolutely right to keep an eye out for disordered eating in their teen daughters. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and the condition known as “eating disorder not otherwise specified” can be extremely dangerous, and even deadly.

Not Just a “Teen Girl” Issue

But what you may not realize is that these issues are not exclusive to girls, or to teens. In fact, eating disorder hospitalizations for children under the age of 12 have skyrocketed in recent years, and the conditions are on the rise in male children. Indeed, when very young children develop eating disorders, boys seem to be just as likely to be affected as girls. And sadly, eating disorders are especially damaging to prepubescent children because of their still-growing bodies and brains.

Risk Factors

What causes eating disorders? Though the answer is complex, there’s evidence that some people are genetically prone to the problem. People who tend towards a rigid or perfectionist personality may be more at risk, along with athletes or performers. Importantly, being previously involved in dieting, especially severe dieting, is also known to be a risk factor.

Treatment Options

Eating disorders can be successfully treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medical nutrition therapy. Sometimes, medication or inpatient treatment are needed. While most patients recover, progress may be slow. There is also a significantly increased risk of depression and anxiety later in life. The good news for parents is that it seems to be easier for young people to recover than it is for adults.

Red Flags

The following symptoms may be cause for concern:

  • A consistent pattern of eating very little or refusing to eat at mealtimes
  • Continuing weight loss, possibly disguised under baggy clothes
  • Retreating to the bathroom after meals
  • Preoccupation with food or strange rituals around eating
  • Focus on intense exercise
  • Hiding or hoarding food
  • Confusion or distorted beliefs about own weight or body size
  • Physical symptoms: dizziness, feeling cold, dry hair, discolored teeth, scars or callouses on knuckles from inducing vomiting and in teen girls, no periods

A trained healthcare provider can pick up on less obvious signs and may be able to get your child to talk if you can’t. If you suspect an eating disorder in your son or daughter, don’t wait to seek help. Your child’s health depends on it.

(Photo Credit: To eat or not to eat by daniellehelm. CC license.)

Further Reading

National Eating Disorders Association–National nonprofit dedicated to helping those with eating disorders

Something FishyInformation on anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and compulsive overeating

References:

Mayo Clinic. (2012). Diseases and conditions: Eating disorders. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/eating-disorders/basics/symptoms/con-20033575

Rosen, D.S., & the Committee on Adolescence. (2010.) Clinical report–identification and management of eating disorders in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 126(6), 1240-1254. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-2821

University of Michigan Health System. (2010). Eating disorders: What families need to know. Retrieved from http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/eatdis.htm

(Note: Original publication date Feb 27, 2014)