As a parent, you are most likely going to recognize the most obvious signs of a full-blown eating disorder. If you child gets to an advanced stage of the illness, or if he or she has a genetic composition that quickly reflects eating disorder behavior, then you are likely to notice very obvious changes in weight and a clear change in your child’s relationship with food.
But it is far more common for your child to carry eating disorder behaviors completely under wraps for months, even years, without being detected. Did you know that while most people think of eating disorders as the most severe cases of anorexia, indicated by extreme thinness, the vast majority of eating disorders do not show such obvious physical traits?
So we thought we would point out some non food, non body size warning signs to help you monitor your child’s mental health. Mental health is comprised of numerous elements, and it may not be possible to completely prevent a mental illness like eating disorders, but one thing we know is that downward spirals and/or unhelpful feedback loops can take a person from healthy to ill quite quickly if we don’t address them as soon as possible.
If your child has recently undergone a change in friends, such as a break up from an important friend or group of friends, it may be a sign that something is wrong. There are two things to pay attention to: recovery from the blow and active isolation.
First, if the break up is causing a great deal of distress for your child, and they seem unable to recover after a short period of mourning, it is worth asking questions and seeking to support your child through this time period. Losses of friendship are very serious in the life of a teenager and can lead to downward spirals, especially in sensitive children.
Second, if your child appears to be actively withdrawing from activities with friends, isn’t talking to them regularly, and is not seeking opportunities to be with peers, it may be a signal that something is interfering with his or her ability to maintain healthy relationships. Many times depression, anxiety and eating disorders lead a child to actively isolate from friends.
If you see either of these as a possibility, then talk to your child to see whether you can help. Don’t be afraid to seek a qualified professional who can evaluate whether your child needs help with managing relationships during this phase of life.
If your child is becoming increasingly stressed, you should pay attention to the sources of the stress and how your child manages the stress itself. “Feeling stressed” is often code for feelings of anxiety and depression. What you are looking for is an increase in stress levels compared to what is normal for your child. Sometimes increased stress levels make perfect sense – tests, pressure to perform, and sports can all provide natural levels of stress. The issue is not whether you child experiences stress, but how she or he responds to stress.
If the stress is disrupting your child’s ability to sleep and function on a daily basis, it is a warning sign. That means that they are not able to process the stress in a healthy way, and would benefit from support in learning how to do that.
Anxiety, depression and eating disorders are all frequently accompanied by a constant sense of looming doom, or overwhelm. This sense is persistent and feels hopeless. As a parent, you can help by providing tools for managing stress, but if the condition appears serious, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional who can help your child more directly.
Obsession with Appearance
You may notice that your child is spending more time on their appearance. While this may be normal, it can also move into an obsessive and/or compulsive behavior if the child is predisposed to such problems. An obsession and/or compulsion with one’s appearance is frequently associated with an eating disorder.
As with all of these elements, some level of attention to appearance is completely normal and healthy. Such behavior becomes a warning sign when it tips over into a situation that interferes with everyday life. For example, if your child refuses to leave the house because of a bad hair day, that is a sign that they are becoming over-focused on external appearance. If your child is having a meltdown every day about some aspect of his or her appearance, it is a good idea to work with him or her to try and address where those feelings are coming from.
An unhealthy focus on body image and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are frequently observed in conjunction with eating disorders, so if you believe your child’s focus on their appearance is becoming unhealthy, seek professional support from someone who can diagnose and treat the condition appropriately.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.