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When Is It Time to Seek Out Help for Your Child’s Eating Disorder?

Seeking treatment for any mental health disorder can be an intimidating process for parents. For most people, there is guilt and shame surrounding any form of mental health disease, and admitting that there is a problem is necessary for every recovery journey, whether that is from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or any other eating disorder.

For adolescents with eating disorders, another hurdle might present itself — speaking out to a loved one or another trusted adult. But studies indicate that early intervention is often essential to long-term eating disorder recovery, especially for adolescents. While discussing the child’s dieting habits, purging behaviors or the potential development of an eating disorder can be difficult subjects for parents to approach with their child, it’s the essential first step to helping them gain recovery. After this conversation, families can begin to explore eating disorder counseling options and the best course for recovery.

When Should Parents Consider Eating Disorder Treatment for Their Adolescents?

Before families can begin the search for a suitable eating disorder treatment program, it’s a good idea to become more familiar with the early warning signs and symptoms of common eating disorders. This research can help parents to understand their children better, and what they are experiencing mentally and physically — and prepare everyone in the family for the road ahead.

Some early warning signs of common eating disorders include:

  • Dramatic weight fluctuations and weight loss
  • A preoccupation with food, dieting, calories, fat grams, body shape, and body weight
  • Refusal to eat certain foods, like carbohydrates, dairy, etc.
  • The development of food rituals that may include eating foods in a specific order, excessive chewing, not allowing foods to touch, etc.
  • Maintaining a very rigid exercise routine despite illness, bad weather, and outstanding social engagements
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Withdrawal from regular social obligations, depression, anxiety, and panic attacks
  • Hiding or hoarding food
  • Eating in secret and/or consuming large amounts of food in secret
  • Dizziness, fainting, and sleep problems
  • Tooth enamel erosion, cavities, tooth sensitivity, because of self-induced vomiting

Eating disorders, of course, concern a person’s relationship with food eating, and their feelings about their body. However, they are psychiatric illnesses and as such rarely come without some form of a co-occurring disorder. Parents and therapists of adolescents who are showing signs of disordered eating should also be on the lookout for signs of other mental health disorders. These often include major depression, at an even higher rate than it affects the general population. A variety of anxiety disorders are also common in people with eating disorders, most often PTSD but also general anxiety, social anxiety, and OCD.

Linked to this is the increased risk of self-harm and suicide among people with eating disorders. For example, suicide is the second most common cause of death in people with anorexia nervosa. We mention this not to cause panic among our readers, but instead to indicate the viral importance of seeking out help from professionals when faced with an eating disorder. Every psychiatric illness is considered to be more treatable if it is caught early.

How to Get Started on Eating Disorder Recovery

Chances are, if you are concerned about your child’s eating habits at all, it’s time to seek professional help. At this point, everyone in the family can likely understand that these disordered eating behaviors are a problem and understand that the problem won’t simply go away on its own. If thoughts surrounding food, dieting, body weight, exercise, and body shape are ruling someone’s life, this is a potent indicator that an eating disorder is either present or is beginning to develop.

The journey towards recovery begins when the person struggling with body image and eating concerns can admit there is a problem. While this can be hard to do — especially in a society that puts a premium on self-reliance and places a stigma on mental health care, accepting help from others can allow distorted thinking and patterns surrounding food can be treated. The good news is that these behaviors can be replaced with new and positive coping skills.

Coping skills are the key. As mentioned earlier, PTSD and the overwhelming negative emotions that come with it can be major triggers for disordered eating behaviors, but any kind of negative feelings can be the cause. Disordered eating often acts as a way to re-establish control and cope with these feelings. Most treatment centers place a premium on instilling new coping behaviors to replace disordered ones. This can be through traditional therapy, behavioral treatments like CBT or DBT, or experiential therapies like mindfulness training or animal-assisted therapy. No matter the specific treatments implemented, recovery begins with a conversation.

How Can Parents Talk to Teens About Eating Disorders?

The National Eating Disorders Association recommends that parents and other family members should speak with their loved ones with compassion and care, being firm in their convictions, but avoiding any judgmental or accusatory statements. They should be ready to ask questions and also give some answers themselves. The more informed parents are surrounding eating disorders and different treatment options, the better. Here are some questions you might want to ask:

  • When did you start having different thoughts about food, exercise, and weight? What kind of thoughts did you have?
  • When did you notice changes in your behaviors? Which behaviors seemed out of the ordinary? What were you trying to accomplish with these new behaviors?
  • Have you noticed any physical health changes like lack of sleep, digestive problems, or dizziness? Any emotional changes like anxiety or depression?
  • How do you feel today?
  • How can I best support you?

The single most important part of this conversation can be summed up in two words – no judgment. Eating disorders bring with them a sense of shame, both about the behaviors themselves and due to a distorted perception of their body image. When a parent acts accusing or blaming n a conversation like, this, it can worsen those feelings – and even push the adolescent further into disordered eating behaviors. Worse, it can prevent further discussions, as they will simply refuse to talk about food, eating, body image, or any other related topic.

The first conversation should be low-pressure, a safe place for the teenager to openly talk about their feelings. No topic should be off-limits, but it is generally inadvisable to get into a point-counterpoint about their body shape or size. Instead, focus on how they feel – about their body, about eating, about pressures at school, or any other issue that is affecting them. Let them express themselves – even if it’s painful to you. The point of this initial conversation is to set the stage for further help, possibly from professionals. To accomplish this aim, they need to feel safe and comfortable discussing some very hard topics.

Taking the Next Steps

Hopefully, once you have established lines of communication with your child about eating disorders, mental health, and how they affect the family, they will be amenable to receiving some form of help. Be encouraged – this is a keystone for recovery. Take the take to schedule an appointment with a child psychologist. In some cases, the school might be able to help you locate one, or another therapist or hotline might be able to make a local recommendation. Please note that if you have determined that there is an eating disorder present, you shouldn’t try to solve it yourself. They are highly complex psychiatric disorders and require professional treatment.

When you’ve located a psychologist and set up the initial visits, you should begin to look into what kind of coverage your insurance can accommodate. Most major insurances cover mental health treatment for dependents – this includes eating disorder treatment in residential and outpatient formats. Discuss the available treatments with the therapist and – importantly – with your child. Their input is the most important by far. Forcing your child into a treatment program they are opposed to is a drastic step, which can be counterproductive. If the eating disorder has become advanced, there may be medical complications to consider as well. In these cases, residential treatment may be necessary.

Seek Help from a Residential Eating Disorder Treatment Center

After your conversation, feelings might be raw, but you will all be ready to take the next steps with confidence. A good place to start is by researching and calling an eating disorder treatment center, which are experienced and prepared to treat a variety of eating disorders and other mental health conditions. The admissions team can usually provide an initial assessment over the phone or via chat, and they can help you make travel and financial arrangements.

Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.
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