Eating Disorders Can Be Fatal: Here's What Parents Should Say and Do If They Think Their Child Has an Eating Disorder
College students have tremendous pressures on them these days. As parents and grandparents we read, hear and worry a lot about binge drinking and drug use on college campuses. There are quieter but equally destructive – in fact, even deadly – ways college students are harming their health as well: eating disorders.
In Parents: 10 Winter Break Warning Signs of Eating Disorders in Your College Students, I shared expert advice on what parents should look out for while your college students are home for the holidays. Experts stressed that parents and other family members should be "vigilant," especially with college freshmen.
Here, I'd like to share more expert advice on what to do and say if you suspect a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder — especially a college student coming home for visits. Maybe they are starving themselves with anorexia or bingeing and purging with bulimia. Or both. Whatever disordered relationship they may have with food, it means they are in crisis, in pain, and need your intervention.
Elizabeth Easton, PsyD, is the clinical director of child and adolescent services at Eating Recovery Center. She offers some "dos and don'ts" for parents or other family members who become concerned about a loved one's eating habits.
As Dr. Easton explains, there are two possible scenarios as your loved one returns home from college for a visit and you suspect an eating disorder:
Signs and Symptoms:
Weight Loss and Depression: "Your loved one has lost a significant amount of weight, become very isolative or socially withdrawn and appears more pre-occupied with weight and/or food."
Obsession with Exercise: "Additionally, there's a significant change in his or her exercise drive and/or compensatory behaviors (vomiting after eating, abuse of diet pills or laxatives, etc…). These behaviors often mean the person is more entrenched in the eating disorder and is relying on eating disorders behaviors to cope with stress, depression and anxiety."
Eating Little, and in Ritualized Ways: Maybe he or she is eating a small amount but is cutting it into tiny pieces, eating in some private pattern.
If this sounds like your child:
What To Do: "The first priority is your child's physical health. Your son or daughter needs to be taken to a physician for an assessment (current weight versus ideal, any weight loss since leaving for college, current blood work and vitals). If your child refuses to go to the medical appointment or cooperate with the assessment, stress how critical it is to be healthy, especially if he or she wants to successfully return to school the next semester. In other words, if he or she wants to return to independent life back at school, he or she needs to demonstrate that he or she can manage his or her health and well-being through cooperating with the process."
Parents Stay Focused on Health: "Parents should focus on what needs to be done, rather than simply asking, "Are you OK?". Kids can easily 'skate' around yes or no questions and give parents answers without details. Also, he or she may not be willing – or capable – to identify the illness and engage in the treatment process. They often need others to take the lead and help them face this issue head on."
Be Firm: "Parents need to be firm and stay involved. If you are concerned about your child's health and potential for an eating disorder, tell your son or daughter what's going to happen, instead of asking for permission. For example: 'In an hour (or tomorrow or this afternoon), we're going to see a physician and explore what's going on with your weight and overall medical functioning. We need to make sure you're healthy.'"
Some Kids 'Wake Up': "Parents should also remember that some kids will 'wake up' when they find out there's a medical concern. Other kids, especially those who are deeply entrenched in the eating disorder, will see it as a challenge and hear the confirmation of weight loss as a motivator to continue to use the eating disordered behaviors."
Stay Connected - Be Supportive and Tough: "Although parents should be firm, it's important to stay involved and acknowledge the stressful and painful process your child is going through. Making threats such as he or she can't return to school until they "get better" can be shaming for a child and won't foster productive conversations. Instead, validate how hard and invasive the assessment and treatment process can be, while firmly insisting that you'll be there to support them and follow through on getting them the help they need.
In my next post, Dr. Easton explains what to do if your child or loved one falls into a second category of possible eating disorders.
Learn More about Eating Disorders and Students here: