Teens in Trouble: Eating Disorders - A Resource for Parents Clinical Director of Child and Adolescent Services Dr. Elizabeth Easton, PsyD, spoke to the Eastern Arizona Courier on possible signs of eating disorders to watch out for in their children. Click here to read the article or read below. Raising teenagers to be healthy and productive adults is no easy task, as anyone who has done it can attest. Many attempt to navigate that mine field without a map of the trouble spots and soon find themselves getting burned by the explosion. There is, unfortunately, no user’s manual for the volatile and unpredictable job of being a parent. However, some signs of trouble are universal, and when one knows what to look for, one might be able to avoid the shrapnel, or even diffuse the explosive. After all, knowledge is power, especially when it comes to your teen. Eating disorders are more prevalent in today’s teen population than ever before. Although one might want to assume that it would be easy to spot, telltale signs may not be as telling as parents would like them to be. Parents can watch for certain personality traits to prevent an eating disorder from reaching its fully damaging potential; but if prevention is no longer an option, there are effective treatment options available. “If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, trust your instincts — parents often know if something is wrong. Educate yourself through research or talk to medical and mental health professionals, and identify your support system. Don’t let your child’s eating disorder isolate you, don’t dwell on the past, and don’t lose hope. Identify what you want to work toward for your family, and take committed action toward that end,” said Elizabeth Easton, PsyD, clinical director of Child and Adolescent Services, The Eating Recovery Center in Denver. There is not one singular reason a person develops an eating disorder, but statistically, there are some factors that seem to be common among many sufferers. One is societal pressure to be unhealthily thin and perfect. It’s no secret that modern society promotes women who are thin and attractive. Another common factor is low self-esteem. Some activities in which weight is a factor — like wrestling or ballet — can lead to an obsession with being perfect, and in turn to an eating disorder, although participation in these activities is not necessarily a step on the road to illness. Some studies have suggested that genetic or biological factors may also come into play, particularly a tendency toward perfectionism or co-occuring disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Additionally, there is some evidence that a child whose parent(s) suffer or have suffered from an eating disorder are more likely to experience one themselves. The two major problematic disorders among teenagers are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, commonly referred to as simply anorexia and bulimia. Anorexia is a food-related disorder characterized by the sufferer severely restricting food intake through dieting, fasting and/or excessive exercise. Every bite the anorexic takes becomes a source of obsession. Characteristically, anorexics have trouble maintaining normal body weight and engage in compulsive, ritualistic behaviors with their food. Most early warning signs of anorexia center around the sufferer becoming overly concerned with his or her weight. They obsess over eating, food and weight control, weigh themselves repeatedly, count calories and/or weigh food compulsively. Anorexics tend to have compulsive personality traits and will often have a series of rules regarding eating, such as which foods are “good” ones and which are “bad.” They may exercise excessively and express concern over getting rid of any and all calories consumed. More advanced anorexics appear extremely thin, frail or emaciated. Withdrawal from social activities, especially those centered around eating, is common, as they try to avoid the temptation to overin-dulge, though they’re likely to make a trip to the commode or the gym if they feel they’ve had too much to eat. Often, an anorexic will cut food into small pieces, then spend much of mealtime pushing the pieces around his or her plate, to effect the appearance of eating, though little food is digested. Bulimia is another of the more prominent eating disorders diagnosed in teens and is slightly more difficult to detect, as bulimics tend to be able to maintain normal body weight, and are sometimes slightly overweight. Similarly to anorexics, bulimics often binge eat (sometimes thousands of calories in one sitting) and then try to compensate for the excess in calories with vomiting, extreme laxative usage or exercising excessively. Parents might spot a blossoming case of bulimia by recognizing their child has an unreasonable fear of gaining weight, expresses unhappiness with his/her body size, shape or weight, or spends a majority of his or her time working out. They often make excuses to go to the bathroom after meals, particularly after a larger meal. They also tend to withdraw from social situations involving food, and behave in a depressed or anxious manner much of the time. Bulimics also have a higher likelihood of drug and/or alcohol abuse. Both of these disorders are highly dangerous, and can have short-term consequences, like dizziness, constipation, trouble sleeping, and in girls amenorrhea, which is the loss of menstrual cycle. If left untreated, patients with eating disorders suffer potentially life-threatening consequences, including muscle wasting, thinning hair, bone loss, tooth decay, delayed growth and development, anemia, digestive problems, heart problems, seizures and various additional mental disorders, like depression and suicidal thoughts and actions. The thought of a child experiencing problems such as these is a frightening prospect to a parent, but like most disorders, addictions and behavior abnormalities, there are preventive measures and proven treatment options. In a word, there is hope. The first step in preventing more serious issues is open communication. Parents should establish early on a ritual of allowing children to share concerns and ask questions, without judgement. Children are more likely to share their concerns, rather than bottling them up until a major problem has developed, if they feel safe from punitive consequences for doing so. Communication is a foundation for fostering confidence and self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem are far more likely to develop an eating disorder. Parents can also lead by example, practicing healthy eating habits and proper self-care. It’s likely that the correlations made between parents who have had eating disorders and their children having similar tendencies are more than likely a result of children having learned certain habits and values from their parents. Although a frightening notion, even those with the best of intentions can find themselves facing a full-blown problem, a child whose health is in serious danger, for whom immediate action needs to be taken. Depending on the severity of the problem, the child may need medical attention, and this issue should be addressed primarily. There are both inpatient and outpatient treatments available, both of which are proven most effective when family members are actively involved in treatment. Often health insurance covers at least part of the expense of treatment. Parents should visit teenshealth.org or teenhelp.com/eating-disorders/ for more information.