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For Parents

"I Just Don't Understand Eating Disorders"

Teens suffering from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts, anxiety disorders and substance abuse — but how much they suffer may depend on the type of eating disorder they have. That’s according to an analysis published online last week in the Archives of General Psychiatry that, with 10,123 adolescents surveyed, is the largest and most comprehensive study of eating disorders in teens in the United States.

About 0.3 percent of the teens surveyed reported suffering from anorexia nervosa, and 0.9 percent from bulimia nervosa. A full 1.6 percent suffered from binge-eating disorder [By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times].

The Abductor

On June, 1991, Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped when she was 11 years old. She was abducted from a school bus stop and was missing for over 18 years. During this time JC had two daughters by her abductor. One question so many of us can't truly understand is "why didn't she simply run away when she had the opportunity?

Psychologists have a term to help explain this phenomena: the Stockholm Syndrome. The Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological response that occasionally occurs in people who have been abducted or held hostage. The abductee doesn't resist and actually shows signs of loyalty or caring for the person who took them. The person does so despite the dangerous and harmful things the abductor has done to them.

Instead of hating the abductor, the abductee befriends their abductor and, at times, believes that the captor is really protecting them instead of harming and controlling them. We can use this term, "Stockholm Syndrome" to also understand how people become "abducted" by an eating disorder.

Eating disorders take hold of someone's mind and just won't let go despite the fact the eating disorder is harmful, even potentially lethal. They rob the person of their physical and emotional health. Living on minimal calories a day is extremely painful. Malnutrition can damage parts of the body beyond repair. We ask, "Why don't they just eat?" "Why don't they just end the eating disorder's captivity over them?"

There are many complex biological, social, genetic & psychological reasons. One way to help parents understand to equate it with Stockholm Syndrome.

  • The eating disorder the abductor.
  • The abductor makes the person do many things: starve herself, binge and purge for hours, take laxatives, or run until exhaustion.
  • In return, the eating disorder offers her a false sense of protection. It gives her/him the message that if you are thin, life will work out.
  • It provides her/him with a temporary way to cope with life.
  • As a result, she/he begins to befriend the eating disorder and creates an identity around it.
  • She/he will defend it when other people show concern or try to treat it--exactly like an abused woman defends her abuser.
  • They experience the same cognitive dissonance that people with the Stockholm Syndrome do: they believe the eating disorder is something that is trying to help-- not hurt them.

Yet, many cry, "I want to stop eating! I can't stop!"

2 Samuel 22:6: The waves of death swirled about me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.

Be Aware: Pro-Eating Disorder Websites Abound

There's a growing trend online where people are actually promoting eating disorders. They call it "thinspiration," and experts say there may be no way to stop them. Most parents can't imagine it: web sites that promote eating disorders. Termed pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia), they proliferate the Internet.

The women of The Veiw discuss these disturbing websites with 2 adolescent women with eating disorders.

These websites offer success tips and methods of hiding rapid weight loss from parents and doctors, and doctored photos or videos of very thin models and actresses. These diet predators are ging and sending Twitter updates right to your child's mobile phone. Health professionals note an increase in the number of cases and have come to consider the Internet, or "Pro-Eating Disorder" sites, to be a source of this increase.

Sondra Kronberg, MS, RD, CEDRD, a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association, told Medscape Psychiatry the images and claims from these pro-eating disorder websites are very dangerous because the viewers are getting reinforcement for their obsessive, anxious, and disordered thoughts.

"For women with low self-esteem, poor body image and a certain genetic predisposition towards an eating disorder, the messages promoted on pro-eating disorder web sites can be similar to someone considering suicide finding a loaded gun on her pillow" (July 2, 2010, PRNewswire).

Gaining insight and control of your child's online life is important. [Other concerns are online gambling and pornography.] A variety of tools exist to find out what sites your kids are frequenting. But nothing takes the place of an honest and open discussion about concerns they have about their body image or weight.

Eating Disorders Are Not Always Obvious to Parents

Sometimes the demands of a sport, or pressure from peers and family members feed the disorder. Other times, teens don't know how to react to the physical changes that come with adolescence and they panic, desperately trying to stop this natural, healthy weight gain. Other teens use food and weight-control to get attention or bring stability to a world that's in chaos (a need for love and attention).

No matter how it starts, eating disorders (ED) are dangerous, can be fatal, and hurt not only the physical body, but emotions and relationships. If your daughter, son, or friend is struggling with an ED, keep reading, and find them help. People who develop ED come from every race, religion and economic background. Whether it's ED, alcohol, drugs, self-mutilation, all of these issues that plague our society represent counterfeit solutions for dealing with pain. They are symptoms of a deeper crisis than what lies on the surface.

Many teens with ED have the desperate feeling that no one loves or even notices them. They feel abused and neglected, and food becomes a way to bring control back to their lives. Sometimes, it's a traumatic experience. Others start losing weight to look good, then discover the rapid weight loss gets them a lot of attention. Most teens with ED feel that if they can just reach a certain size and weight, they'll be accepted by those around them.

Sara said, "Frequently I would compare myself to others, longing to know that I was accepted. I battled low self-esteem daily. Because I believed my personal worth was determined by my accomplishments and appearance, I tried to develop an identity of significance through external means. I thought that if I met my own high standards I would be valuable to others."

Tiffany said, "Hunger reflected and expressed my needs. Food became much more than a means for survival, or a way to maintain control in my life; it became a symbol for love."

Truth: A female who diets before age 14 is 8X more likely to develop an ED

Factors That Can Lead to an ED:

  • Low self esteem
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Anxiety
  • Defining yourself in terms of appearance
  • Actually being overweight
  • Helplessness and a need for control
  • Difficulty in managing emotions
  • Social anxiety and lack of social skills
  • Tendency toward perfectionism

Red Flag Alert!

Trapped in a world of self-loathing, Lilly starved herself until her weight plummeted dangerously low. Like thousands of teens, Lilly was consumed by a crippling obsession with her weight that began as a need for control when she was twelve. Gripped by this monster, she spent her days surfing pro-anorexia websites, hiding the truth from her family and friends. The eating disorder took over every aspect of her life until, at sixteen, she was hospitalized. Doctors warned her parents she might die.

Professor James Lock, from Stanford University, said the mean age seems to be going down for the onset of eating disorders. He stressed that "early referral is essential" to keep cases from becoming chronic. Lilly's parents said they never saw it coming. The signs were there, but like many parents they had no reason to look for the red flags. The most obvious warning signs of eating disorders involve drastic change in eating habits and body image. The less obvious signs may be disguised:

  • Does she/he repeatedly compare herself or find fault with her appearance?
  • Does she/he seem to have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, especially if she/he is underweight or of normal weight?
  • Does she/he talk about her/his body negatively, having a distorted body image?
  • Does she/he talk about being teased about her/his weight?
  • Does she/he think that if she/he was skinny instead of fat, then she/he wouldn't be teased anymore? Or being skinny will "make me happy?"
  • Has her/his eating habits changed? Has she/he lost interest in eating?
  • Does she/he solely eat low-fat foods and regard other foods as "bad?"
  • Does she/he pick or nibble or tear or cut the food into teeny-tiny pieces?
  • Does she/he eat only certain foods or eat at specific times or eat alone?
  • Does she/he skip meals, or make excuses to get out of eating, or say, "I have already eaten."
  • Is she/he preoccupied or obsessed with diet products, counting calories, food grams and nutrition?
  • Has she/he taken up smoking to suppress appetite and relieve stress?
  • Is there evidence of a large amount of empty food packages or laxative packages, or excessive caffeine use?
  • Does she/he over-engage in sports, such as jog constantly or exercise [in front of the television] for long periods of time?
  • Is she no longer menstruating?
  • Is she/he more withdrawn than usual? Has she/he suddenly isolated?
  • Does she/he skip meals, or make excuses to get out of eating, or say, "I have already eaten." moved
  • Does she frequently study cookbooks but never actually eats what she makes?
  • Does she/he eating alone, at night, or in secret?
  • Does she/he hoard high-calorie food?
  • Does she/he avoid social situations that involve food? For example, she/he avoids the school cafeteria at lunch or the coffee shop or diner where you usually meet on weekends.
  • Does she wear baggy clothes or multiple layers in an effort to hide dramatic weight loss (or cutting herself)?
  • Does she/he compete with others about food intake? If she proudly says she only had a diet soda for breakfast and half an apple for lunch, that's a red flag.
  • Does she constantly shiver or have blue fingers, due to intolerance of cold due to loss of body fat?
  • Does she/he have pasty looking skin, or hair loss or extra hair growth on the face and arms?
  • Have you noticed broken blood vessels in the eyes or wounds on the upper hand surface and knuckles caused by excessive purging as a result of bulimia?

Eating disorders affect dental health in a number of ways. The most noticeable are acid reflux effects. Symptoms include swelling of the cheeks and jaw, tooth and gum sensitivity, tooth decay, tooth discoloration, and halitosis.

Eating disorders often onset during the teenage years, so it is crucial to address them quickly. Early intervention is important. If your child exhibits signs start talking, be concerned and take action. But don't ambush her or him with well-meant but overly direct or critical questioning. Getting good information is an important first step.

Mom and Dad, realize your child is in a lonely place where all that matters is her or his weight and the struggle to be thin. This is her or his way of controlling life- the anxiety and stress. They don't see the underlying reason or symptoms. They need to learn new coping strategies and professional counseling can usually provide this. Locate a professional who specializes in eating disorders. Family therapy is one mode of treatment that has shown to have good results.

Do's and Don'ts

Try Not To ~

  • Talk about food, weight, diets, or body shape.
  • Stare or be overly watchful of their eating habits, food portions and choices.
  • Make statements like, "If you'd just eat. . .or stop working out so much. . ." you'll get better."
  • Try to avoid focusing on their physical appearance. Instead focus on their strengths-that he or she is helpful and friendly, or good at math or art.

Do ~

  • Describe what you may have noticed about his or her behavior. One mother, after cleaning the toilet, screamed to her daughter in front of her friends, "Are you making yourself throw up again?" Ashamed and embarrassed she yelled back, "No!" Take her aside in private, talk and let her know you are concerned about what you see.
  • Talk about what is going on. Stressors are school expectations, divorce, abuse, or even being raised in a home where emotions are not expressed or validated. If they won't talk to you find someone they trust, like a school counselor, youth pastor or women's minister, or a relative. Find someone who has recovered from an eating disorder, who is willing to tell their story and offer encouragement.
  • Find an outlet of expression that will allow your child to share the inner chaos caused by stress-such as arts and crafts, sculpting, drama or comedy, music, ging or journaling. The library is a great setting for teens to discover their passion for creativity.
  • Encourage her/him to get involved in a humanitarian effort or volunteer or even start a small weekly peer group to talk about common issues.
  • Locate a professional who specializes in eating disorders. Family therapy is one mode of treatment that has shown to have good results.
  • Help them develop new healthy rewards and realistic goals that are greater than the need to be thin. Be specific and as exact as possible. Have them write down exactly what they want to achieve and post it in a place where they will see it every day. Use positive terms. Instead of writing, "I will stop eating junk food," word the goal positively, "I will make healthy food choices such as. . ."
  • Encourage her/him to believe in herself/himself and stay positive about their progress. Humans are adaptive creatures. Just as we learn negative behaviors (coping mechanisms), we can unlearn them. Kara DioGuardi, one of the American Idol judges, suffered with binge eating disorder. Her entrée into singing and the recording industry helped pull her out of this dangerous spiral. She said, "the moment I did what I loved to do in my life and committed to it, I didn't have those problems anymore." Kara found purpose in life.
  • Have them share their goals, and dreams, with a mentor or good friend who will help keep them accountable and lift their spirits up. Setting goals, talking about dreams, and being in relationship with God, helps her find her purpose.
  • Be flexible and patient. Remember Adolescence is hard enough even without these complications. Keep in mind that setbacks happen. Don't get discouraged and give up. >Above all, pray for wisdom, strength and understanding.

If your child has an eating disorder, hang in there and have hope. I won't lie, they are very tough, but beatable.
"The Lord is the Spirit who gives them life, and where he is there is freedom" (2 Corinthians 3:17, TLB).

The family was set up up by God to be a spiritual system, to impart to children the spiritual laws of the universe. The family is where we are supposed to learn God's ways of loving attachment, freedom of choice, forgiveness, and growing in skills and talents. However, we do not live in perfect families, and many families' rules are much different than God's. God is saying (Mark 3:31-35) that we need to get our family support from the ones who do His will. -- "Changes the Heal" by Dr. Henry Cloud

A Concerned Mom Asks ~

I have an 18 year old daughter who just finished her first semester at college. She has had anorexia since 8th grade. She was hospitalized in an outpatient program during her sophomore year of high school. She maintained her weight until she left home this fall. She is now severely underweight and all of her old eating patterns have reemerged. What can I do to help her now that she is legally an adult? She refuses to go to a doctor.

Answered by a recovered anorexic: First, of all you cannot tell your daughter how to run her life. All you can do is be there for her and let her know that you care. Having an eating disorder is a hard time for anyone to understand exactly how an anorexic feels. She is in a lonely world where all that matters is dealing with her weight and her struggle to become thin. I have experienced this myself and let me tell you that I could not believe the hell that I put my family through. I have been dealing with anorexia for two and a half years and I have gained weigh but I still go through the times were I want to purge and become extremely thin again, to deal with all the hurt that angers me. I know that it is highly frustrating and hard for you as her parent, but please do understand that you cannot give up on her. She needs all the emotional support that you can give her.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. -- Ps. 139:23-24

A Parents Prayer ~

Dear Father, Please make me a discerning and alert parent so that I can protect my children from evil influences, even if it means being different than others. Give my children a desire for what is holy, true, and good. Help me to model right choices for them. I pray my children will grow up to love You with all their hearts and bring You glory in this world. Father, give me the wisdom to lead them, and help me communicate Your ways to them and how to rely on You. I pray that You will open their hearts to the Truth, and their wills be brought into submission to Yours, and that You protect them from choices they will come to regret. In Jesus name, Amen.

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