Many kids with an eating disorder will react defensively and angrily when confronted for the first time. In addition to the health problems, kids who have an eating disorder are probably not having much fun. They tend to pull away from friends and keep to themselves, avoiding going out for pizza with their friends, for example, or enjoying a birthday party.
If you suspect your child has an eating disorder but he or she denies anything is wrong, book an appointment with their pediatrician or family doctor, or ask a school counselor, religious leader, or trusted friend to help. Often kids find it easier to admit that they have a problem to someone outside of their immediate family. A doctor will also be able to determine if there are any signs of the serious health problems associated with an eating disorder. Also, eating disorder specialists are used to dealing with children who refuse to admit they have a problem. They are experienced dealing with denial and making a child feel comfortable talking about the problem.
It can be deeply distressing for a parent to know that their child is struggling with an eating disorder. As well as ensuring your child receives the professional help he or she needs, here are some other tips:
- Examine your own attitudes about food, weight, body image and body size. Think about the way you personally are affected by body-image pressures, and share these with your child.
- Avoid threats, scare tactics, angry outbursts, and put-downs. Bear in mind that an eating disorder is often a symptom to extreme emotional and stress, an attempt to manage emotional pain, stress, and/or self-hate. Negative communication will only make it worse.
- Set caring and consistent limits for your child. For example, know how you will respond when your child wants to skip meals or eat alone, or when they get angry if someone eats their "special" food.
- Remain firm. Regardless of pleas to "not make me," and promises that the behavior will stop, you have to stay very attuned to what is happening with your child and may have to force them to go to the doctor or the hospital. Keep in mind how serious eating disorders are.
- Do whatever you can to promote self-esteem in your child in intellectual, athletic, and social endeavors. Give boys and girls the same opportunities and encouragement. A well-rounded sense of self and solid self-esteem are perhaps the best antidotes to disordered eating.
- Encourage your child to find healthy ways to manage unpleasant feelings such as stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, or self-hatred.
- Remember it's not your fault. Parents often feel they must take on responsibility for the eating disorder, which is something they truly have no control over. Once you can accept that the eating disorder is not anyone's fault, you can be freed to take action that is honest and not clouded by what you "should" or "could" have done.
Editor's Note: This article was adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association and is reposted with permission.