Supporting Children with Eating Disorders: Advice from an Expert
Eating Disorders Awareness Week is this week. Eating disorders affect millions of people around the country around the world, including a considerable amount of children and adolescents.
If you’re worried that your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, there are steps you can take as a parent to help.
We sat down with Elizabet Altunkara, director of education for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), to talk about what parents can do if they think their child may have an eating disorder and what they can do to create a healthy environment at home.
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What Causes Eating Disorders?
Altunkara described eating disorders as “biopsychosocial illnesses,” meaning they can be caused by a variety of biological, psychological and social factors.
Biological risk factors can include family history or genetic predisposition. Psychological factors include things like feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Social factors cover things like cultural norms that overvalue appearance and history of bullying or weight trauma.
An important thing to remember is that eating disorders don’t discriminate.
Despite the common perception of what an eating disorder may look like, eating disorders can affect people of all ages, genders, weights and backgrounds.
“We always have this perception that eating disorders only affect white, affluent young women,” Altunkara says. “We know that’s not true.”
What Can Parents Do to Mitigate the Problem Before It Starts?
While eating disorders are very serious and potentially fatal illnesses, Altunkara says they’re also preventable.
One of the first things that parents can do is learn about eating disorders and learn to recognize the warning signs.
These warning signs might not be obvious at a first glance.
“You cannot really tell if a person is suffering from an eating disorder by just looking at them,” Altunkara says.
Some warning signs can include:
- Dieting, or an increased concern with controlling food
- Food rituals
- Social changes, like becoming withdrawn or extreme mood swings
- Frequent body checking in the mirror
- Weight fluctuations
- Physical issues, like GI issues, dizziness or difficulty with sleep
- Issues with dental, nail and skin health
Parents can also mitigate the effects of social factors by thinking about how they’re talking in front of their children and limiting how much they talk about things like dieting, body image and changing physical appearance.
“Children model their parents’ or caregivers’ behaviors,” Altunkara says. “It’s going to be helpful for parents to question or think about their own values, their own attitudes around food, and about these appearance ideals in general.”
In addition, parents should strive to have open communication with their children.
“In general, eating disorders are very isolating,” Altunkara says. “Usually the person who engages in these behaviors, they feel shameful, so to provide a judgment-free environment is really crucial in order to have that open communication.”
My Child Might Be Struggling With an Eating Disorder. What Should I Do?
Eating disorders are complex, so it’s recommended that parents seek professional help for their child if they’re worried that they’re struggling with an eating disorder.
“We believe that the best strategy is to seek help from someone who specializes in eating disorders,” Altunkara says.
NEDA has a helpline that can help you and your child find support, resources and treatment options. They also have an eating disorder screening tool on their website
Treatment for an eating disorder can look different depending on the severity of the situation, such as an inpatient or outpatient program.
While you’re supporting your child in their recovery, it’s important to take care of yourself as their caregiver as well. Many parents seek out support groups or pursue therapy for themselves while supporting their children in the recovery process.
Altunkara says parents and caregivers should remember that “treatments or recovery may not be linear.”
“There could be ups and downs,” Altunkara says. “We always say that relapse is part of recovery when it comes to an eating disorder.”
But, Altunkara says, relapse doesn’t negate progress made throughout the recovery process. Support from an individual’s treatment team and loved ones are crucial in any recovery process.
“Nobody has to do this alone,” Altunkara says. “We believe that recovery is possible with the right help and support.”