Could your child be at risk for an eating disorder? While eating disorders don’t typically top the list of things that keep parents up at night, it is definitely a path no parent wants their child to follow.
I know, because that was my story.
*This post contains affiliate links. Please see my full disclosure statement for additional information.
Eating Disorder Statistics
According to an article put together by the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 91 percent of college women surveyed have been on a diet at some point. Twenty-two percent said that they dieted “often” or “always,” and according to an article on Eating Disorder Hope, 45 percent of American women are currently on a diet on any given day.
For most American women today, dieting is completely normal. It’s a way of life. It’s almost like a twisted bond we all share.
But what happens when that bond goes too far? After all, dieting isn’t restricted to just adult women. Or to women who diet responsibly.
According to another study conducted by Common Sense Media, 80 percent of 10 year old girls have been on a diet and more than half of girls ages 6 to 8 wish they were thinner.
And while some of these children may simply be trying to eat a little less or exercise a little more in order to maintain a healthy weight, for many of them, this unfortunately isn’t the case.
In fact, more than half of teenage girls and nearly a third of teenage boys attempt to control their weight through unhealthy behaviors including skipping meals, vomiting, smoking and taking laxatives. And reports estimate that somewhere between 0.5 and 3.7 percent of women suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point during their life, making eating disorders a daily struggle for approximately 10 million American women on any given day.
I still remember stepping onto my mother’s scale as a child and seeing the number: 90 pounds. I’d always been naturally thin, but for some reason, that number bothered me. I thought perhaps I should weigh a bit less.
The change wasn’t immediate. But over the next couple of years, I slowly started restricting what I was eating. Skipping meals when I could, eating less when I couldn’t, and doing my best to stick to foods that were as low in calories as possible.
It wasn’t easy. My mother was a very involved stay-at-home mom and we ate dinner together as a family nearly every night, but I found ways to make it work as much as I could. And finding a community of other anorexic women online really helped. After all, I had my own computer in my bedroom. I could do pretty much whatever I wanted there.
**Tip: Don’t let your kids use the computer completely unsupervised, and make sure to look into an internet accountability software like Covenant Eyes if you’re worried about what they’re up to. Better safe than sorry.
I remember my best friend being SO angry with me. Because she knew exactly what I was doing, but she didn’t know how to stop it. My parents knew some of it too. They just didn’t know what to do about it.
Thankfully for my health, I never was able to lose as much weight as I wanted to. I was never hospitalized or sent to a treatment facility or anything, though not for lack of trying. At 5’4, I made it down to 91 lbs at my lowest after not eating once for five days straight. This was my sophomore year of high school.
I won’t post pictures here only because I don’t want anyone to get a hold of them for the wrong purposes, but I will say that it was so interesting to look at pictures of me from around that time now, all these years later. I literally didn’t recognize the body I saw. Because what I see now and what I saw back then are not even close to the same.
Common Eating Disorder Warning Signs
Worried that your child or friend may be secretly struggling with an eating disorder, but you aren’t sure? Here are a few of the less obvious signs to watch out for:
- Obsession with his/her body, weight, or appearance
- Eating in secret
- Consistently not eating or eating an unusually small amount, perhaps claiming to have eaten already
- Tiredness/lack of energy
- Eating unusually large amounts of foods in one sitting
- Hiding food wrappers/containers
- Peculiar eating rituals
- Frequent trips to the bathroom or another place where he/she can be alone
- Exercising excessively
- Teeth that are worn or yellowed
- Loss of period in girls
*Please note–just because someone is thin does NOT mean they have an eating disorder. Being naturally thin and having an eating disorder are two entirely different things.
*Also, just because someone is not thin doesn’t mean they don’t. It’s possible to have an eating disorder and still be a normal weight or even overweight. Weight is just one of many symptoms.
How to Help a Child With an Eating Disorder
As a concerned parent, it’s only natural to want to get your child to eat something. Unfortunately, however, getting angry or forcing your child to eat will likely only backfire–causing them to dive deeper into secrecy and various other methods of control.
If your child truly has an eating disorder, then the amount of food your child eats isn’t the issue. It’s a symptom of a much deeper issue.
Here’s how you can help–from someone who hasbeen there and truly understands both sides.
1. Be Involved
Like most disorders, eating disorders thrive in secrecy. Don’t give them a chance to.
As kids become teens, it’s normal for them to want a little more privacy, but as the parent, you decide how much they get. Stay involved.
Talk to your kids. Find out who their friends are, what kids are up to these days, what your kids are dealing with at school. Don’t interrogate them; just get to know them.
Eat family dinners together. Go to their games and performances. Get to know their friends and teachers. Keep an eye on what they’re doing online. Your kids may not make it easy, but it’s your job. Take it seriously.
2. Let Her Know How Beautiful She Is
Eating disorders aren’t all about looks, but chances are, if your daughter has one, she doesn’t believe she’s beautiful. Let her know that she is. She won’t believe you; she’ll probably even ignore you. But tell her anyways. Tell her every day. And really mean it.
Society places SO much pressure on girls (and boys!) these days it’s ridiculous. Even if you know all those celebrities are photoshopped–she doesn’t. Not really. And neither do all of the boys in her class who watch porn and think it’s a good reflection of real life.
Be the voice that affirms her, loves her, and builds her up without fail. Cherish her, value her and see the best in her. And make sure she knows you do.
3. …But Don’t Stop There
Of course, you shouldn’t JUST compliment her looks. After all, the way we look is only a very, very small part of who we are. But she doesn’t know that. Not right now anyways. Eating disorders cloud your judgement so that’s all you can see, all you can think about, all that matters.
Remind her how much the rest of her matters too.
Tell her how smart she is and how much you admire her drive. Tell her how funny she is and that you can always count on her for a laugh. Tell her how lucky you are to have her as a daughter, that you thank God for her every day, and that you don’t know what you’d do without her.
Share encouraging Bible verses with her–verses to remind her who she is in Christ, how valuable she is to Him and all of the wonderful plans He has for her life.
Speak into her words of life and affirmation. Remind her of all the good things about her and about her life that she can’t see right now.
4. Set a Positive Example
As you are doing this, be careful that your actions aren’t setting a double standard. Are you telling her that she’s worth more than her looks and then complaining about your gray hair and wrinkles? Are you encouraging her to eat more but always on a diet or at the gym yourself?
Do you criticize your own body or others’? Do you complain about having nothing to wear or that nothing ever fits right?
Do you watch shows, read magazines or listen to music that idolizes women’s bodies, or do you allow her to? While you can’t directly blame the media for making your daughter have an eating disorder, the things we fill our minds with become our new “normal.” Keep a watchful eye on what she’s filling her mind with.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful or wanting to be desired (in fact, God created us to want those things!), but our focus should be on taking care of our bodies to use them for God’s glory, not just our looks or a number on the scale.
And this goes for you too, mama.
5. Give Her a Reason to Eat
Although I struggled with anorexia for many years, I was never bulimic. The reason? I used to sing and didn’t want to risk ruining my vocal chords. Singing was too important to me.
So, what’s important to your son/daughter? Playing sports? Acting? School? Work? Helping take care of younger brothers and sisters? Is there a way you could position it as a motivation to stay healthy?
Perhaps you could plan a special hiking trip, road trip or visit to see a friend or relative across the country–or anything else she has her heart set on–on the condition that she has to be healthy enough to go.
For me, I’m not anorexic anymore and know that there’s no way I could be right now. I have three small children who need their mother, including a little peanut of a nursling who literally depends on me for life itself. I’m not going to put their well-being at risk.
And for those who would–eating disorders are called a disorder for a reason. The people who suffer from them don’t need judgment; they need love and support and professional help as needed.
6. Help Her See How Her Actions Affect Others
As clearly as I remember the day my eating issues started, I also remember the day that would eventually end them for good.
A friend of mine from choir informed me that if I wasn’t going to eat, he wasn’t going to either. And he was serious. He came over for dinner and silently stared at me until I took a bite first.
I suppose I could have found ways around it. I could have never talked to him again and refused to let him know if I was eating or not. But I didn’t. I was fine with hurting my body, but I couldn’t stand the thought of being responsible for hurting someone else’s as well.
He wasn’t mean or rude or forceful, simply matter-of-fact. He told me that I didn’t see how my behavior was hurting other people and that I needed to. And it worked.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying go hurt yourself or those you love. But eating disorders have a way of being all-consuming, so the person suffering from them simply can’t think about others to the degree that they normally would have.
So you may need to politely remind them.
Don’t be mean, rude, or spiteful. Don’t get angry. Just share how their behavior has affected your family or what it has cost you in a very matter-of-fact way, assure them you still love them, let them know that it saddens you, and then leave it at that.
Worth a shot, right?
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up
The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What helps one person overcome their eating disorder may not help another. And even if you read every book and every article and have 100 great ideas, you’re still going to mess up sometimes.
Don’t let that fear of not knowing what to say or not knowing what to do keep you from doing anything at all.
If your child has an eating disorder, they need your love and they need your help–even if they don’t think that they do. Even if they push you away and get angry at you for trying. Don’t give up. Keep pouring life and love into them, helping them and connecting to them in any way you can.
They won’t appreciate it now, but at least they’ll have the chance to make that choice. And maybe, just maybe, someday they’ll thank you.
By the way, if you’re worried your child may be using the Internet to help encourage their eating disorder or other addiction, I would definitely look into a service like Covenant Eyes. It’s an easy way to help keep tabs on what your kids are up to online to reduce the secrecy and allow you to start important conversations as needed.
Have you or someone you know ever struggled with an eating disorder? What questions or advice do you have for others in that situation?