Eating disorders are life-threatening illnesses that turn families’ lives upside down. You may not immediately see this side of eating disorders when the media glamorizes images of surgically enhanced waif-like celebrities given current standards for the “ideal” body. But, eating disorders can and do kill; they even kill kids. Eating disorders are not, however, the fault of the media.
If your child suffers from an eating disorder, you might be sitting up at night, trying to figure out why. Research shows that fashion magazines negatively impact the self-image or girls, yet not every girl develops an eating disorder. Some parents blame themselves, and some well-meaning, but misinformed, professionals also blame parents.
I want to be clear: absolutely no data exists to support the notion that parents CAUSE their child to have an eating disorder. However, data does show that eating disorders result from a complex interaction of biology, culture and environment.
Potential Causes of Eating Disorders:
Biological factors that may contribute to an eating disorder include:
- Being female. Boys do get eating disorders, but girls are at a much higher risk.
- Having a tendency toward perfectionism and obsession.
- Having a hard-driving personality and a self-critical nature.
- Experiencing certain types of emotion, like anxiety or depression.
The most critical cultural factor that may cause an eating disorder is the expectation that thin is beautiful. It is ironic that this expectation increases as Americans are considered to have a higher than average body size.
Environmental factors that may contribute to an eating disorder include:
- Being teased about weight.
- Receiving comments about body size from coaches, friends and parents.
- Parents modeling (e.g. mothers making negative comments about their own bodies or engaging in chronic dieting)
What happens if your child develops an eating disorder? Early detection and expert care greatly influence the outcome, and luckily, times have changed. When I was first trained in the treatment of eating disorders over 20 years ago, we treated only adolescents, not their parents. Worse, we viewed parents as part of the problem and told parents to back off . We concluded that the eating disorders resulted from the child feeling out of control, and thus, the child needed to learn to take control back, herself.
Today, most professionals view eating disorders as a medical condition that parents can help to treat. If your child didn’t take the prescribed chemotherapy medicine, a doctor wouldn’t say, “back off”. She needs to decide when to take it. Food is no different; it is the medicine in eating disorders, and parents need to help administer it.
Treating Eating Disorders
Similar to life-threatening, childhood diseases, such as diabetes or leukemia, eating disorders will not go away without the help of expert care. Effective treatment requires care from a specialist. If you suspect that your child has a problem, search for a multidisciplinary team who are experts in the treatment of eating disorders. We recommend that you ask providers the same questions you would ask for any other illness: Where did they receive their training? What treatment model do they use? Be wary of a provider who does not recommend family-based treatment as the first step.
Depending on the severity of the eating disorder, the treatment may take the form of weekly or daily visits with professionals. With proper training, parents can learn to help manage the recovery of their child from an eating disorder just as they would learn to help administer physical therapy if their child broke a bone. No family should expect to handle this disease alone.
Advice for Preventing Eating Disorders
There are ways to help prevent eating disorders. Parents can influence their child’s environment and culture by:
- Limiting the media images brought into the home.
- Discussing media images with kids.
- Emulating healthy eating and exercise.
- Empowering their kids to stand up against weight and shape prejudices.
- Teaching that effective leaders come in all shapes and sizes.
- Engaging in physical activities outdoors, like walking and biking, as a family activity.
- Being ready to talk to kids about their concerns, hearing them when they confess to a problem and taking them seriously.