By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
It wasn’t until Tess Jones put on a bathing suit that her parents knew something was profoundly wrong. With just 89 pounds on her 5’6” frame, she had been able to dress in baggy clothes to disguise her eating disorder. She claimed food allergies kept her from eating dairy, meat, and gluten –– all foods that had made it onto her “bad list.”
But it was a girls’ trip to the beach with her sister and mother that revealed what she had been hiding.
“That was the first time that they had seen my body in a very long time,” Jones says. “It was a very scary time.”
Eating Disorders in College
Experts say it’s not uncommon for eating disorders to catch parents off guard. It could be the hustle and bustle of everyday life that keeps parents in the dark. Or a child who leaves for college and returns home with an apparent issue. Spotting an eating disorder isn’t always clear-cut.
But with the end of the semester nearing at many schools, some parents might find themselves face-to-face with a child who has made drastic dietary changes or noticeably lost weight. When that’s the case, Melainie Rogers, the owner of NYC-based eating disorder treatment center BALANCE, says there are a few steps parents can take.
“Eating disorders are complex illnesses and have many contributing factors, including psychological, biological and social factors,” Rogers says. “So, whether or not a child has struggled with food or body image before college, this can be a time where students become vulnerable to developing an eating disorder or disordered eating patterns.”
You may see changes in eating habits (eating more or less than usual), noticeably lost weight, and/or expressing fears around gaining weight and/or becoming fat. These are just a few red flags parents may notice, says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas.
Something’s Not Right
“Parents need to take their parental intuition seriously,” McBain says. “If they are sensing that something is not quite right with their teen, then there is probably something deeper going on.”
“If your parental intuition is leaning toward the possibility of an eating disorder, the first thing you want to do is tell your child how concerned you are about his or her health. Then, outline the impact of the behavior that you noticed,” says Nancy Lipson, a registered social worker and founder of the Canada-based Accept Yourself Therapy Centre. “Examples are noticing how little they are eating. Or noticing how much weight they have lost since they were home last.”
Lipson says an example of what to say includes: “I am concerned about how much weight you have lost since you were last at home. I am so concerned that I am going to make an appointment for you with your doctor. I would like to come with you.”
Reassure your child by also saying something like, “I would also like to talk with you about how school has been. I know it can be stressful,” Lipson says.
From there, act as their confidant and supporter whenever possible, says Laura Roias, a licensed independent clinical social worker and program director at Walden Behavioral Care’s Worcester Clinic.
“If they are willing to explore treatment options, help them with their search,” Roias says. “This can be overwhelming –– there are many different treatment centers, and they all will bring something different.”
If your child has had issues with an eating disorder in the past, then you can also help them identify the types of support or specific interventions that have or have not worked for them in the past and narrow your treatment center search based on those criteria.
Additionally, familiarize yourself with local support group options, which can be helpful for both your child and yourself. Check out The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) for an online directory.
Asking Tough Questions
And when you do sit down with your child, don’t be afraid to ask some tough questions, says Shannon Battle, a licensed professional counselor. These include those related to specific changes you notice about their appearance (e.g., weight, skin discoloration and facial structure). Or about their meal plan at school and how they make time to eat around classes.
When they return to school, stay on top of them by doing regular FaceTime check-ins. Take note if they begin to avoid your calls. Or if you notice appearance changes when you are speaking to them, Battle says. If possible, get to know their roommate or friends. Ask them to make observations as well and reach out to you if they become concerned.
Battle also suggests tapping into a counseling service center at your child’s school. Most colleges offer a center that students can access free of charge, giving your child the option to seek professional guidance while away from the therapist they may be seeing at home.
After the incident at the beach, Jones says her mother and sister came to her and said, “We can’t let you do this –– we love you.”
It was “an ugly scene,” she says, but a necessary one. “Or else I probably wouldn’t be alive, to be honest.”
Caroline Shannon-Karasik is a writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. In addition to Your Teen, her work has been featured in several print and online publications, including Narratively, Tonic, Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Yahoo. More can be found at carolineshannon.com.