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Home Family Parenting Advice Dealing with eating disorders in teens — Good Parenting

Dealing with eating disorders in teens — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I made a discovery leading me to believe that our almost 13-year-old daughter has an eating disorder. She admitted it to some friends in texts. Not sure what behaviors she is engaging in, but I suspect it might be laxatives. What would be the best first step? Do I tell her that I found the texts or do I just bring up the topic and let her know I’m concerned in a general way? I’m distressed over it and want to progress sensitively.

Mom in Shock

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Dear MiS,

Our culture perpetuates a “thin is in” standard giving body-conscious children and teens, especially girls, a skewed impression of what they should look like. There are further risk factors such as depression, perfection seeking and control seeking that can draw a young person toward dangerous behaviors to control her weight. Just fitting in socially, unfortunately, leaves some thinking that reshaping their physical selves will do the trick. Among other respected sources, the Mayo Clinic postulates there may be a genetic factor to eating disorders in addition to psychological and social causes.

Bulimia (food binges followed by forced vomiting, laxative use or excessive exercising) and anorexia (self-regulated starvation), are most often seen among students from middle school to college. And those who are engaging in extreme dieting and other unhealthy behaviors can spread the disease among their friends. They teach each other their techniques and encourage each other to get thinner.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to get in shape. Abuse of laxatives — a mistaken attempt to remove calories before they’re absorbed by the intestines — can cause dehydration to the point of kidney damage, electrolyte imbalance associated with heart trouble, removal of the intestine’s protective lining which can increase infections, and can also reduce the body’s ability to respond normally to a full bowel. Self-induced vomiting, a popular method of weight control among teen girls, puts one at risk for a variety of physical problems including anemia, stomach ulcers and tooth decay (from stomach acid eating away enamel). Continuation of a habit that denies the body an adequate flow of nutrition can lead to depletion of red blood cells, cessation of normal heart rhythms, coma and multi-organ failure. The sad truth is that unhealthy ways to make the body look “fit” can lead to death. For more facts about bulimia visit healthline.com.

Eating disorders should be a concern for all parents of adolescents. Arm yourself with information and keep your eyes and ears open for trouble among your child’s peers. Teens can be an excellent source of support and information for their friends, but they can be more effective if the adults in their lives are supportive and have the information and resources needed.

How big is this problem? The Emily Program Foundation, whose mission is to eliminate eating disorders, estimates that 14 percent of adolescent girls and 6.5 percent of adolescent boys are struggling with eating disorders. A startling statistic from notmykid.org shows that as many as half of teen girls and a third of teen boys are actively engaged in unhealthy methods of weight control such as intentionally skipping a meal or smoking cigarettes after eating. The Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website suggests that even younger children are concerned about their body weight. A survey in 2005 found that 81 percent of 10-year-olds were fearful of being fat — which could lead some of them to look for ways to solve the “problem” based on advice from friends or hopefully parents.

It’s possible that your daughter was just trying to impress her friends with her text, using the eye-popping topic of bulimia for attention, and not actually engaging in such behavior. However, you might as well pick an opportune moment to bring up the subject since it is one of those “talks” parents of teens need to have at some point before it’s too late. Talking to a trusted adult, whether a family member, teacher or professional counselor, can give her an outlet for any of the many anxiety-producing issues that entangle our teens. Having the talk will remind her that you are indeed savvy enough to know about the issues in a general way and will demonstrate that you are, at the very least, an “askable” parent. Along these lines, knowing she has at least one adult in her corner can reduce the need to resort to self-damaging eating behavior now or in the future.

To start the conversation, the Center for Disease Control has a helpful guide for parents and other concerned adults.

As for the cell phone surveillance, it is your prerogative to use whatever means available to keep tabs on your child’s health and safety. If you choose to tell her that it was her text that prompted your conversation about eating disorders, she will know that her text messages are monitored. She will no longer be able to have secretive conversations with friends about promoting unhealthy behaviors. This can be a good thing! She will be able to use you as a handy excuse to protect herself from dangerous peer-sanctioned activities. Peer pressure is a strong force, and not always for your best interests. On the other hand, if you decide to keep mum about reading her phone texts, you can continue to use that method of secret supervision in the future.

You’re entering a formidable stretch of parenting. This issue places you squarely between an invasion of privacy and a necessary medical intervention. Your daughter may not immediately appreciate your actions, but good parenting has its rewards in the long run.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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