If you suspect your daughter has an eating disorder, your concerns may be justified. The number of children and adolescents diagnosed with this condition has risen in recent years.
While the causes of eating disorders vary from person to person, you can still be an active part of the solution. In this article, we’ll discuss some common eating disorder warning signs so you can assess whether your daughter needs help.
Never Too Young
Some parents make the mistake of assuming their daughter is too young to be struggling with an eating disorder; however, eating disorder symptoms often begin in early childhood. In addition to other biological and psychological risk factors, the pressure to be thin starts at a surprisingly early age.
According to one study, 42 percent of girls in first through third grades wished they weighed less.1 An additional survey revealed that 81 percent of 10 year olds were “afraid of being fat.” Self-imposed dietary restrictions among children can quickly escalate, and in some cases, result in an eating disorder.
Knowing the Eating Disorder Warning Signs
Not all of the eating disorder warning signs are obvious, such as self-induced vomiting or overuse of laxatives; a few would easily go unnoticed if you weren’t aware of their meaning. Here are some common red flags to watch for:
Unusual weight change: This is the most obvious warning sign. Children continue to grow and gain weight throughout adolescence, and significant weight loss or odd weight fluctuations may signal a problem.
Declining dinner plans: If your teen is backing out of plans to grab food with friends, they may be trying to hide disordered eating behaviors.
Playing with food: Cutting food into tiny pieces and pushing it around on a plate while not actually eating could indicate food avoidance.
Disappearing after meals: Does your daughter excuse herself right after dinner to use the bathroom? She may be purging after a meal.
Hiding food in her room: Every teen occasionally leaves a snack wrapper or empty bag of chips in her room, but a teen who’s struggling with binge eating will deliberately conceal the evidence—in drawers, under the bed or in the closet.
The Next Steps
If you spot some of these eating disorder warning signs in your child, it’s important to take action as soon as possible. Early intervention can mean the difference between life and death—the most common eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, has the highest mortality rate of all mental disorders at 10 percent.2 A few steps you can take include:
Ask questions: Avoid making accusations or assuming that your child has a problem. Try to ask open-ended questions, such as “I’ve noticed you’re not eating much at dinner lately. Is anything going on?” She may not admit that’s she’s struggling with a problem, but asking in a non-judgmental way will help ensure that the lines of communication are open when she’s ready to talk.
Show your support: Let your daughter know she’s not in any trouble, but you’re concerned about her health and ready to support her in whatever way she needs.
Seek treatment: Your child’s pediatrician or your family physician is a good place to start for information and guidance. A high-quality eating disorder treatment center is an ideal source of information to determine the best course of action for your child.
When your child shows signs of an eating disorder, you may find that you’re blaming yourself. While normal, these feelings of guilt are unproductive and won’t help your daughter. Being aware of the warning signs of an eating disorder and helping your child to receive the treatment she needs are the best ways to ensure a lasting recovery and a bright, healthy future.