Most people who have eating disorders remain undiagnosed and untreated, often for life. This is partly due to the weight stigma that surrounds eating disorders, which means that only those who become “medically underweight” based on BMI standards are recognized as having eating disorders.
While a lot of us who are undiagnosed will find our own way to recovery without formal help, it means we waste years of our lives living with a treatable disorder that damages our health, both physical and mental. Even when we are not medically underweight, we may be starving ourselves. Even when we appear strong and healthy, we may be damaging our internal organs. Even when we say we are happy, we may be harming ourselves.
Most children will do everything possible to hide an eating disorder from their parents, but it is important for parents to know that most of us fervently wish that you would find out. It’s complicated, and it’s not easy to confront a child who is hiding an eating disorder (many of us will fight to hold onto our disorders), but it’s also our jobs as parents, now that we know this information, to act as best we can to help our kids.
As you consider how best to approach your child when you suspect they have an eating disorder, consider these six feelings your child may be feeling when undiagnosed/untreated for an eating disorder:
Most people, young people especially, mistakenly equate their “selves” with their bodies. This means that we believe that maintaining control over our bodies means we are controlling our entire lives. Most of us begin our disorders with a diet, carefully measuring and watching as we make changes in our habits and see our weight drop. This feeling is intensely powerful and rewarding, especially since most weight loss is accompanied by positive reinforcement from others. As we go deeper into our eating disorder, we crave that feeling of power over our bodies. Once we start sneaking our behaviors, we feel even more powerful in our successful execution of our eating disorder. When our parents are not able to stop our eating disorder, we gain a sense of independence and autonomy that becomes critically important to our sense of self.
Eating disorders are very sneaky, and they help us figure out ways to hide them in plain sight. We feel very smart when we are able to avoid eating food or sneak food into our rooms for a binge. We feel very smart when we sit at the table with family and eat a meal, then purge it in plain sight – with nobody catching us. We feel very smart when we are able to manipulate our weight or resist food for the day. When restricting, we often feel superior in our abilities to deny ourselves the foods that others indulge in. Our eating disorder becomes our partner in deception, and we begin to feel pretty damn good about our ability to keep our eating disorder under the radar with our skills.
Most people who have eating disorders experience intense feelings of loneliness and a sense of being out of control. Luckily, our eating disorder is there to assure us that as long as we follow its rules, we are supported and doing the right thing. Our eating disorder becomes the loudest voice in our head, assuring us that we are on the right path and being explicit in its praise of our accomplishments when we maintain the disorder despite anyone’s attempts to stop it.
Even with the perceived value of our eating disorder in our head, we also feel lonely. Our eating disorder can become the center of our world, and we must isolate ourselves and our true feelings from people we love in order to maintain it. As much as we get a rush from protecting our eating disorder, we also feel terribly alone. As much as we feel a bit smug when we sit at the table engaging in our eating disorder in plain sight with no repercussions, we feel very alone in our eating disorder. Here parents can see the paradox of the eating disorder. Even when we desperately want intervention and support, we have equally strong feelings about remaining isolated in our eating disorder.
Sometimes we feel our eating disorder is getting too big, too powerful. As much as we want to maintain it, we can also feel that we are being controlled by it. Our disordered minds quickly cover these feelings up with reassurances that the eating disorder is a wonderful thing. But in our hearts, we feel afraid. We worry that our eating disorder makes us disgusting and gross. The more we hide it, the more ashamed we are of our condition. We worry that our eating disorder, if exposed, will turn people off. We are afraid of someone walking into the bathroom at an inopportune time, or clearing the table before we have managed to hide evidence of our disorder. We are always scared about both the fact that we have an eating disorder and the idea of losing our eating disorder if we are found out.
Even as we feel powerful because of our eating disorder, the fact that we can get away with it makes us feel profoundly unseen. It’s a paradox, because of course we are doing everything we can to keep our disorder unseen, and yet, being unseen by loved ones is devastating. When we hide our disorder successfully (and it’s very easy to do this), we must also live with the consequence of the people closest to us not knowing about a very important part of our lives. Our eating disorder is a significant part of our lived experience, but when we don’t share it, we erect barriers between ourselves and the people who we would like to notice us.
What parents can do
The main thing parents can do is continually pay attention to their children and be aware of the signs of an eating disorder. Some signs you may consider include:
- Watch for weight changes. While weight alone is an unreliable predictor of eating disorders, if your child is gaining and losing weight repeatedly, this may be an early sign of an eating disorder. If your child loses weight, avoid praising the weight loss. Remember that weight loss, while culturally desirable, is often an indication that something is wrong.
- Watch for dieting. Our culture believes that dieting is healthy, but it is not. Intentional weight loss doesn’t work (long-term), causes damage to our bodies and minds, and leads to eating disorders. Via dieting, eating disorder behaviors have become socially acceptable. If your child is dieting, it may be an early sign of an eating disorder.
- Watch for social flushing. If your child is increasingly spending time doing isolated activities (especially exercising or spending time in the bathroom), or has moved away from family and old friends, it is worth considering whether this is an attempt to maintain an eating disorder. Many of us will flush our existing social networks in order to hide our eating disorders. It is much harder to hide our disorders from people who knew us before they arose, so often we will avoid family members and switch friend groups so that we can hide our disorder without detection.
If you suspect that your child is hiding an eating disorder, be compassionate with yourself and your child when you address it. Understand that eating disorders are not simple, and they don’t just go away without building new coping skills that replace the eating disorder behaviors. Don’t blame yourself, don’t blame your child, and don’t look backwards. Seek help for yourself and your child, and move forward in pursuing treatment, confident that the majority of eating disorders are treatable.