by Hannah Maynor

After obesity and asthma, eating disorders are the 3rdmost common chronic illness among adolescents. The importance of early recognition is unparalleled because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness children face.

Stereotypes Are Deadly

  1. Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sex, age or otherwise.
  2. Further, eating disorders don’t have a “look.” General stereotypes equating thinness with eating disorders are naive. While thinness is commonly associated with disordered eating, there is no weight qualification for diagnosis. Eating disorders do not discriminate. Like most illnesses, they affect everyone differently. While some eating disorders result in weight loss, others do not—eating disorders are mental illnesses.
  3. It’s not simple—telling a child to “just eat” is not only discouraging but counterintuitive. An illness rooted in anxiety cannot be cured by forced feeding. Put simply, the food itself is not the problem and is an inadequate solution.

Seeing the Signs

  1. When children start displaying aversions to foods—especially foods they once loved—it’s time to pay attention. A child may have other reasons for not eating besides disliking the taste—restriction presents in many forms. Whether it is fear of a stomachache, issues with texture or general tensions at mealtimes, ensuring adequate food intake is essential.
  2. Obsessive exercise and concerns about body image are often signs of disordered eating in children. While students involved in competitive sports may be more prone to these fixations, social peer pressures surrounding physical appearance are also impactful. Watch for over-analyzing, which can be: pulling or stretching at the skin, too much mirror time and obsession with minor body changes.
  3. Eating disorders can manifest physically. Outward signs of eating disorders in children include thinning hair, fragile nails, lanugo, stunted growth and clothes that no longer fit.

How to Help

  1. Realize this is not really about food—eating disorders are rooted in anxiety. Many parents think their child is choosing not to eat, but statistical realities prove eating disorders are incredibly complex illnesses. They often require comprehensive treatment by professionals and unwavering familial support to overcome. Thankfully, when properly treated, there is a 60% recovery rate.
  2. Setting a positive example might sound cliche, but the reality is that children learn what others teach them. If parental figures are constantly monitoring their food intake by counting calories and carbs or dieting, the message sent to children is that: food is something to be controlled. Even simple language assigning “good” or “bad” qualifiers to certain foods is influential. Leading by an example of a healthy relationship with food is powerful. Children notice when food is just food and not a battle with your body.
  3. Ditch the scale—weight is literally the gravitational force upon a body, not a moral judgment. Children are taught numbers in school, and numbers have no intrinsic quality of being right or wrong—they just are. However, when a parent’s routine begets weekly weigh-ins followed by an emotional reaction, children learn to assign feelings of defeat or success to quantified amounts of gravity upon them. Avoid these practices around children. If they have already learned to associate weight with their worth, take the opportunity to teach them that one number does not determine their health.

Understanding eating disorders is no small feat. The complexity of this mental illness cannot be overstated. It may feel impossible or even uncomfortable for those who do not suffer from an eating disorder to learn about an illness that is so consuming for others. Supporting children who may be struggling with an eating disorder may include utilizing therapy, conscious household food practices and a serious, positive attitude about health can make acritical difference. When food is treated as fuel, regardless of what it is, children learn about their needs in a healthy way.

Children learn from us. The odds of beating an eating disorder rise when they are allowed a safe space and grace through the process. Forget the stereotypes, and ditch the household scale.