Signs Your Child May Have an Eating Disorder
I made it to the age of 16 not ever worrying about what I ate, how much I ate or whether I was fat or thin. I was a dancer growing up, so I had plenty of physical activity and could eat whatever I wanted. But that all changed the minute I was cast as the lead in the musical, “A Chorus Line”. In my Junior year of high school, I transferred to a performing arts high school, where the competition was fierce and the Program Director, Mr. Smith was extremely hard on me.
The day after I was cast as Cassie in a Chorus line, Mr. Smith walked past my lunchroom table and saw a chocolate chip cookie on my plate. He grabbed the cookie and sternly said, “We can’t have a fat Cassie, can we?” Since everyone in the musical portrayed a dancer, Mr. Smith stated that all of the girls needed to loose weight and the boys needed to gain weight. He implemented a policy that every Friday, he would weigh us in front of the cast and call out what you previously weighed and what your current weight was.
This was horrifying. If you had gained even a pound, your were belittled and berated in front of everyone. The day Mr. Smith said “We can’t have a fat Cassie”, was the last day I ate anything without immediately throwing up my food. I started the dangerous cycle of starving myself and then binging and purging. When I looked in the mirror, all I could see were my imperfections and I started believing that I was overweight. I began pretending I had already ate dinner, so my parents would not watch me eat, and I threw away the lunches that my mother made for me. I didn’t know what anorexia or bulimia was, all I knew was that I would never be thin enough.
I saw myself as overweight, even when I was dangerously underweight. Like most people with anorexia nervosa, I would typically weigh myself repeatedly, severely restrict the amount of food I ate, exercise excessively, and forced myself to vomit or use laxatives to lose weight.
I suffered with bulimia and anorexia for three years. I would have recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes. My binge-eating was followed by forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives, fasting, and excessive exercise. It was a vicous cycle of starvation followed by binge eating.
I don’t blame my parents for not figuring it out that I had an eating disorder, because it just wasn’t something that anyone spoke about. They saw that I was underweight and took me to the doctor to see if there was anything wrong my thyroid. My eating disorder was my deepest, darkest secret and my worst enemy. I began to hate myself and the way that I looked, and making myself throw up was a form of self punishment for many years.
I went off to college at New York University and my eating disorder followed me. One time, I was so weak, I passed out in a subway station, only to find myself in a hospital. My parents were contacted and told that I was severely malnourished and that if I did not get treatment for my eating disorder that I could die. My parents met me at the airport and drove straight to a Residential Treatment Program for Eating Disorders, where I would spend the next four months of my life.
I remember sitting with my parents and a therapist who explained to us
how important it was to seek treatment early for eating disorders. She explained that people with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide and medical complications. People with eating disorders can often have other mental disorders (such as depression or anxiety) or problems with substance use. But she left us with a sense of hope by reinforcing that with intensive counseling that complete recovery was possible. Upon hearing this my parents cried, and they held on to that belief to get them through.
I was one of the lucky ones who received intensive therapy and was able to learn how to eat normally again. After I got out of treatment, I transferred colleges to be closer to home and I never made myself throw up again. The last part of having an eating disorder that lingers long after you resume to regular patterns of eating is an accurate reflection of your weight. For many years after I stopped having an eating disorder, I saw a fat girl in the mirror. My body image and self esteem took many years to improve.
I am passionate about educating the parents I work with about the signs that their child may have an eating disorder, because the sooner you identify it and get help, the less likely your child will have long term effects on their health and self image.
According to NIMH, Symptoms of Anorexia include:
- Extremely restricted eating
- 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, a self-esteem that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape, or a denial of the seriousness of low body weight
Other symptoms may develop over time, including:
- Thinning of the bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
- Mild anemia and muscle wasting and weakness
- Brittle hair and nails
- Dry and yellowish skin
- Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
- Severe constipation
- Low blood pressure slowed breathing and pulse
- Damage to the structure and function of the heart
- Brain damage
- Multiorgan failure
- Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
- Lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time
According to NIMH symptoms include:
- Chronically inflamed and sore throat
- Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area
- Worn tooth enamel and increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid
- 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 stroke or heart attack
A Message from Verywell
Eating disorders most commonly develop during the adolescent years but have been documented in children as young as seven. Weight loss in a growing child is unusual and even if the child started out overweight, should be met with caution. If you are concerned that your child is struggling with eating and/or showing any of the above signs, speak to your pediatrician. If your pediatrician does not seem to take your concerns seriously, trust your parental instinct, seek additional consultation, and learn more about eating disorders. You need to act. Your child’s fate is in your hands. Parents are not to blame and can play an important role in helping a child with an eating disorder to recover.