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My Child Has an Eating Disorder, What Do I Do?

More than 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson). About 3 percent of U.S. adolescents are also affected by an eating disorder (National Institute of Mental Health). If you think your child has an eating disorder, you are not alone. Millions of families like yours are struggling to find direction and peace in the midst of this disorder, and Lighthouse Network can help. Our adolescent programs help individuals with eating disorders develop a balance in their life, while healing mind, body, and spirit through the truth and comfort that comes from God and His instruction manual.

After addiction and suicide from depression, anorexia is the most life-threatening behavioral health disorder as it can lead to depression and suicide as well as medical dangers to the body, especially the heart.

Eating Disorder Subtypes

Anorexia Nervosa (Anorexia) is characterized by low self-esteem manifested by a belief their normal body is too big or heavy. The person is then obsessed with food, their weight, their appearance and engage in many unhealthy efforts to restrict caloric intake, accelerate what they can burn off (excessive exercise), or expedite unnatural elimination through vomiting or laxatives.

Bulimia Nervosa (Bulimia) is similarly characterized by low self-esteem and dissatisfaction about weight and physical appearance, but the hallmark behaviors are uncontrolled binging episodes and then compensatory purging (vomiting), laxatives, or excessive exercise to get rid of the excessive calories. Episodes of food restriction also occur for some with bulimia, but not all.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by frequent episodes of out-of-control eating binges but without the compensatory behaviors to lose the calories. Often guilt/shame follow the episodes as well.

In order to help your child with an eating disorder, you, as the parent, have great influence and need to step in and exert it.

Educate yourself. Parents who go blindly into fighting an eating disorder make many mistakes along the way; some mistakes actually prevent your teen from defeating their eating disorder. The best thing you can do to avoid this is to educate yourself. Learn about eating disorders and their prevalence, find out the causes, dangers, symptoms, and signs, and inform yourself about treatment options.

For more information, visit the following sites.

National Institute of Mental Health

U.S. National Library of Medicine

Eating Disorder Statistics

According to the latest published statistics:

  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat
  • 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets
  • Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, excessive exercise, or taking laxatives
  • 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, excessive aerobic exercise, or laxatives. Overweight girls are more likely than normal weight girls to engage in such extreme dieting
  • Even among clearly non-overweight girls, over 1/3 report dieting
  • Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders]

Cause:

Eating Disorders are complex, and many factors can lead to their development. Think of an eating disorder similar to an addiction, where the addiction object is food or a certain physical look. Addictions are a person’s unhealthy and harmful attempt to deal with stress or past hurts/wounds/rejections/traumas. Initially the coping skill brings relief, but ongoing use becomes harmful and even life threatening.

Those with eating disorders struggle with self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, have trouble expressing or outletting their emotions, and lack a sense of control of their life. So controlling what and how they eat and look like brings temporary soothing, but dangerous ongoing effects. Other contributing factors can be childhood physical or sexual trauma, a society, hobby (dance, gymnastics), or home glorifying/fixated on weight/size or appearance, or being teased because of weight or appearance.

Spiritual distance also is prominent as they are not able to feel God’s love for who they are as His child and feel valued with a purpose that is unrelated to their external appearance, weight, or size. Instead of finding peace and soothing in God’s love, forgiveness, grace, and promises, they seek it through food, appearance, admiration from others, and trying to exert extreme control over their life.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the following are signs of eating disorders.

Anorexia nervosa:

  • Extreme thinness (emaciation)
  • A relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Distorted body image, actually believing they are bigger than they really are
  • A self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight
  • Lack of menstruation among girls and women
  • Extremely restricted eating.
  • Decreased bone density and bone strength (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry and yellowish skin
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
  • Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
  • Severe constipation
  • Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
  • Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
  • Infertility
  • Low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • Chronic Anorexia:
    • Damage to the structure and function of the heart muscle (EKG changes)
    • Brain damage
    • Multiorgan failure

Bulimia:

  • Chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
  • Worn tooth enamel, increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid from frequent vomiting
  • Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration from purging of fluids
  • Electrolyte imbalance (too low or too high levels of sodium, calcium, potassium and other minerals) which can lead to heart attack.]

Binge Eating Disorder: (National Eating Disorder Association)

  • Behavioral Characteristics
    • Evidence of binge eating, including the disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time or lots of empty wrappers and containers indicating consumption of large amounts of food.
    • Secretive food behaviors, including eating secretly (e.g., eating alone or in the car, hiding wrappers) and stealing, hiding, or hoarding food.
    • Disruption in normal eating behaviors, including eating throughout the day with no planned mealtimes; skipping meals or taking small portions of food at regular meals; engaging in sporadic fasting or repetitive dieting; and developing food rituals (e.g., eating only a particular food or food group [e.g., condiments], excessive chewing, not allowing foods to touch).
    • Can involve extreme restriction and rigidity with food and periodic dieting and/or fasting.
    • Has periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling uncomfortably full, but does not purge.
    • Creating lifestyle schedules or rituals to make time for binge sessions.
  • Emotional and Mental Characteristics
    • Experiencing feelings of anger, anxiety, worthlessness, or shame preceding binges. Initiating the binge is a means of relieving tension or numbing negative feelings.
    • Co-occurring conditions such as depression may be present. Those with BED may also experience social isolation, moodiness, and irritability.
    • Feeling disgust about one’s body size. Those with BED may have been teased about their body while growing up.
    • Avoiding conflict; trying to “keep the peace.”
    • Certain thought patterns and personality types are associated with binge eating disorder. These include:
      • Rigid and inflexible “all or nothing” thinking
      • A strong need to be in control
      • Difficulty expressing feelings and needs
      • Perfectionistic tendencies
      • Working hard to please others
      • Physical Characteristics
        • Body weight varies from normal to mild, moderate, or severe obesity.
        • Weight gain may or may not be associated with BED. It is important to note that while there is a correlation between BED and weight gain, not everyone who is overweight binges or has BED.

      Have a Heart to Heart

      Talking to your child will take patience, control, and insight. Remember the causes above. Your child is stressed and having trouble coping while their life is starting to revolve around food/weight/appearance. Due to their low self-esteem, you must be gentle as they will feel easily attacked even though that is hopefully not your intent. Start by asking about their life in general, what is going on, what they are enjoying, and what is stressful. Then ask how the stress makes them feel and what do they do to soothe that stress or feel back in control again, if they ever feel that way.

      Be a good listener. Really strive to hear them and especially their heart. Then express your concerns by suggesting that some, to soothe or escape the pressures of teenagerdom, turn to healthy outlets, but some try alcohol, drugs, or shoplifting, some turn to shopping, gossip, pornography, or sexual activity, while others turn to controlling their appearance, being a people pleaser, conflict avoider, isolation, fights, arguing, or food. You can ask if they’ve ever thought or tried those behaviors or others to deal with life’s pressures or their uncomfortable internal feelings and thoughts.

      Remember, they need to know you love, care for, and value them, and they especially belong to you and you want that to continue, unconditionally. Above all, keep from being critical, but instead be a teammate coming alongside in this battle for their body, mind, and spirit which needs treatment over time with love, counseling, and connecting them to God’s truth about how He loves and values them. Be compassionate of your child’s frustration and embarrassment over this disorder, and offer hope and your help to overcome it.

      Find help.

      You don’t have to do this alone. The goal with all of your research and talking to your child is to learn about their condition and find the right help for them. Eating disorders can be managed and lives healed through intensive therapy programs. A Christian treatment program will help your child achieve sustainable inner change, or transformation, that only comes through the empowering of the Holy Spirit to apply God’s instructions for life written in the Bible. Transformation brings real peace, hope, and fulfillment, as your child learns how to view themselves clearly through God’s lenses, then make good decisions, manage stress, and care for their body, mind, and spirit.

      Examine your life.

      Parents often feel a great deal of guilt when a child suffers from a psychological or behavioral health disorder. It is important during your child’s transformation for you to examine your life and learn from the experts how you can best help your child through this. There will be behaviors or attitudes in your life that you will be encouraged to modify (start eating family meals together, reducing stress and conflict in the household, practicing positive communication, emotion expression and management, and conflict resolution skills, etc) in order to foster the best atmosphere for everyone’s healing and growth.

      Consider going to counseling yourself and definitely take part in family therapy with your child. Whatever you can do to bring more peace in your own life and role model better life management skills through counseling, Bible study, prayer, and your own transformation, the greater the influence you will be on your child.

      Lighthouse Network offers real hope for families with eating disorders from adolescence through adulthood. Some eating disorders have co-occurring depression, PTSD, addiction, or other anxiety and mood disruptions. We have unique Christian options for all ages and co-existing struggles. Let us help you today. Contact our Care Guides at 844-Life-Change (844-543-3242) for hope, encouragement, and to get connected to your best treatment options.

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