Once youngsters hit adolescence, they become particularly susceptible to eating disorders. So what can parents do to help stop it from happening to their kids? And are there danger signs to be mindful of?
Be aware of the facts
‘It’s important for families to be aware that eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, for which there isn’t one sole cause,’ says Rebecca Field, spokesperson for the eating disorder charity, Beat. ‘In fact, we know that there are more biological and genetically based reasons than we ever thought there were, so if it does happen it doesn’t mean it’s your fault.’
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things parents can do to help prevent disordered eating behaviours from happening and to nip it in the bud if it’s already started happening, she adds. ‘Research shows that the sooner someone gets treatment, the more likely they are to make a full recovery.’
Stop conversations about weight and dieting
‘Eating disorders aren’t things you can catch or that come about as a result of copying others but it is helpful to talk about dieting and weight as little as possible with or around your child if you want them to have a healthy attitude towards eating,’ says Field. ‘We advocate celebrating people not for their weight, shape or what their physicality is like – but by things like how kind or funny they are and how they treat their friends.’
Consider your attitude towards your own body
If you constantly self-judge your own body – criticising it at every turn – then is it any wonder if your children start doing the same about themselves? Try to develop a healthier relationship with your own body, so you don’t perpetuate feelings of bodies not being good enough onto them.
Eat together as a family
A study of over 13,000 pre-adolescents and adolescents found that having family dinners most days decreased the risk of eating disorders. Shared family mealtimes give parents a chance to be role models for healthy eating, to monitor their child’s food intake and to talk about food in a healthy context.
Ensure you have good eating habits
It’s not just at mealtimes when you can be a good role model around eating. If you snack on fruit and carrots, they will be more likely to as well. If you constantly go for chocolate and then talk about feeling guilty, there’s a chance that they will also mirror that. Try to change to protect your child – and you will benefit from your increased health too.
Decrease the pressure around exam time
‘We know that exams can be a huge trigger point for eating disorders among young people,’ says Field. ‘They tell us they felt huge stress and pressure and completely out of control. It’s so important for parents not to put unnecessary pressure on a child, especially around exams – and to reiterate that they’re not the be-all-and-end-all and that they can only do the best they can.’
Encourage healthy exercise
Adolescents who are encouraged by parents to exercise have been shown to be happier with their bodies. ‘Given that exercise is one of the best ways to cope with mental health difficulties, it makes sense for parents to get children outside and playing in the garden or nearby parks in a healthy, non-obsessive way to grow up as healthy young people,’ says Field. But be aware that excessive or compulsive exercise can be a sign of an eating disorder.
Help your child to feel positive about their body
For teenagers, this isn’t always easy. Study after study shows that many adolescent girls, as well as boys, dislike their shape. Certainly never tease teenagers about weight. Studies show up to 40 per cent of girls are teased and this doubles the risk of being overweight and increases the risk of unhealthy dieting. Even commenting on their weight can make them feel bad – if you decide your child needs to lose a bit of weight, put the whole family on a healthy eating and living programme.
Educate your child about the media
‘There is a body ideal that is portrayed in the media and if young people don’t meet that ideal, it is easy for their self-worth to be reduced,’ says Field. ‘We work hard to promote the fact that the should be a range of body sizes – parents should do the same, as well as talk about how people with bodies that meet the body ideal aren’t any happier.’
If your child is looking at magazines, she adds, talk to them about how those images might be altered with make-up and lighting ‘and clever things that take place after the photo is taken.’ ‘Bottom line is quite often, these photos aren’t real.’
Don’t forget boys
A quarter of people with eating disorders are male, according to research. ‘We think that figure is probably an under-representation, though, because stereotypes mean males may be less likely to recognise it or to visit their GP, and we also know that GPs are less likely to put males forward for treatment than females,’ says Field.
Look for alarm bells
‘In a recent YouGov survey, 34 per cent of adults were unable to name any symptoms of eating disorders – and almost 80 per cent were unable to name any psychological symptoms. But the earlier you spot the signs, the greater the likelihood of intervention working,’ says Field. ‘If someone is already entrenched in their eating disorder, they literally form new pathways in their brain and breaking those pathways is much harder.’
Among the most common physical signs are sudden or rapid weight loss, frequent changes in weight, sensitivity to the cold, loss of menstrual periods, signs of frequent vomiting (e.g. swollen cheeks, damage to teeth), fainting, dizziness and tiredness. Some of the most common psychological warning signs are increased preoccupation with body shape, weight and appearance, distorted body image, moodiness, depression, anxiety, low self esteem, feelings of life being ‘out of control’ and rigid ‘black and white’ thinking.
Beat offers support services including that is open 365 days a year, and online message boards and peer support groups. The helpline is available for questions or worries of any kind, from parents as well as sufferers. You can also find information about eating disorders on the Beat website and a directory of services offering treatment on the HelpFinder.
Adult Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Youthline: 0808 801 0711