People with an eating disorder will have thoughts and behaviours centred around food, weight and body shape but it is important to understand that these are a coping strategy which they have developed to help them manage difficult feelings such as anxiety, self-loathing, depression and shame.
Eating disorders are serious and complex mental health conditions; Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. Early intervention is vital and most patients will require a team including their GP, a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist and a nutritionist to support their recovery.
Whether or not someone will develop an eating disorder is determined by a variety of factors including their personality, genetic make-up, biology, social environment, what is culturally prized and levels of psychological stress. It is often mooted that eating disorders are the preserve of the adolescent girl but this is simply not true. They can affect anybody at any time.
In terms of prevention there is a lot we can do as parents to minimise the likelihood of our children developing an eating disorder. We can teach them healthy ways to manage their feelings. We can help them focus on the journey to any goal rather than the goal itself to minimise any pressure they might feel. We can encourage them not to put too much pressure on themselves. We can model the importance of living life in balance. We can give them the time, space, permission and opportunity to talk to us about anything that might be worrying them. We can show that we take their concerns seriously no matter how trivial they might seem to us. We can check that the school environments we choose for them are pastorally proactive and we can give them the social skills to be able to create and maintain healthy relationships.
We can do all of these things and more but there are times when an eating disorder develops despite our best efforts and then we need to know what to do. You know your children well, if you are worried that they are not ok then the chances are you are right, so trust your instincts. Think through when, where and how you can most sensitively broach the subject. There is excellent advice for this here on the BEAT website. Stay calm and focus on feelings rather than behaviour because there is often a lot of shame and secrecy around the behaviours attached to eating disorders which, when confronted, can result in them becoming too angry or upset for rational discussion. Your child needs to know that you love and accept them for who they are; that you are robust enough to discuss painful emotions so they don’t need to protect you; that you will support them in any way you can and that there are experts who can and will help them get better.
Lastly I think it is important to recognise that supporting someone with an eating disorder can be extremely stressful so find support for you and the rest of your family because you will all be affected by this most distressing of illnesses.
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