The holidays are a time of togetherness for family and friends. They bring a certain warmth of sharing love and memories, often coupled with catching up with loved ones who have been away for some time. The holiday season is also filled with food, drinks, and more food — another way that families show and share love. What if you start to notice behaviors with a loved one that are abnormal or self-destructive? I recently read an article by the Huffington Post entitled Parents are the First Line of Defense Against Eating Disorders in College Freshmen. This article gives helpful tips for noticeable signs that your college freshman may have developed an eating disorder after their first semester away from home.
Going away to college can be a perfect storm for eating disorder development: the child’s first taste of freedom and choice, the endless array of dorm food and late night pizza runs, the desire to fit in with new friends through food, drinking, and overindulgence. In the article, some of the signs are noted as: a noticeable weight loss, a withdrawal from family and friends, and over-concern with meal preparation, discussing that college is very stressful or anxiety-producing, and excessive exercise. While one or two of these symptoms might not necessarily mean that an eating disorder is present, these can be signs to keep in mind and notice if they intensify or inhibit the student’s life.
So, say you are concerned about a loved one’s behavior and mood changes and worry that he or she might be developing an eating disorder? How do you approach them so that the disorder doesn’t get worse and he or she might seek out help? This is a very tricky and touchy area, as eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating disorder are plagued with feelings of guilt and shame and often are kept in a place of denial. Anorexia nervosa is also difficult to approach due to the rigidly-controlling and overwhelming feelings that this disorder might inflict on the loved one.
Here are a few tips for trying to show you care about a loved one who might have an eating disorder or body image struggles; I found many helpful hints in the book Good Girls Don’t Get Fat by Robyn J.A. Silverman, PhD which is a very powerful book about “how weight obsession is messing up our girls and how we can help them thrive despite it”.
1.) Your teenage daughter stands in front of the mirror and says she is ‘ugly and fat’, pointing out the flaws in her thighs and waist. What do you say? “I think you have a beautiful body. Think of all of the amazing things that it does for you: ride your bike, play soccer, dance, run, jump. When I look at your body I see a body that is open to a whole world of exciting possibilities.” Try to re-direct the focus away from negative thoughts about the body towards positive, accepting, and hopeful thoughts about the amazing capabilities of our bodies.
2.) Do you notice your daughter or son starting to control food and avoid certain types of food due to potential weight gain? What can you do? Model for him or her a positive relationship with food and your body. Try out many types of foods and express how delicious they taste. Love food for the energy it provides, for the way that it makes your body feel. Be adventurous, be brave. Treat your body with kindness by exercising, eating intuitively, and not worrying about how much or what type of food you are eating. Your children will notice this body-acceptance and hopefully adopt it themselves.
3.) You are a father and are noticing your daughter comparing herself to others, not ‘measuring up’, and starting to refuse food so as to lose weight. What do you do? Compliment her for things about her that are amazing and are not tied to appearance or weight. Help her see her strengths in writing, sports, or theatre without using the way she looks as a defining component. Tell her she is beautiful and remind her of this often. Model a safe, secure, and loving environment so that she can feel okay to be just who she is.
4.) Your daughter does not make the volleyball team, feeling excluded and ‘not good enough’. She begins to isolate herself and work out in her room for several hours a day in order to ‘get in better shape’. What do you do? Perhaps you had an experience in school where you felt rejected or that you didn’t measure up to the standard. Share that experience with your child, show her that it is a normal, if painful, growing up experience, and that she thrives in many other areas. Help her understand how you got through that experience, what you learned from it, and that you are always there to talk with her. Help her to channel that energy into self-esteem building ways, such as joining a yoga class or volunteering at an animal shelter.
5.) You notice large quantities of food disappearing and that your partner has little energy, significant mood swings, and wants to be alone a lot. What do you do? Don’t confront her right away, but try to spend more time with her where food is involved: cook together, eat together, and talk without distraction (like tv or computer) while sharing a meal. Don’t criticize her food choices or amounts. Show her that you care but offering to spend time doing her favorites activities. If she is isolating, invite her to watch your favorite television show together. Create a positive, safe, and nurturing environment and model healthy eating habits to her. Offer yourself as someone she can talk to and not be judged. She will do so when she is ready. Also secure support for yourself: go to therapy, talk with loved ones, do research.
Struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues is devastating for the loved one as well as her family and friends. The more that this is talked about and normalized, the less hidden and shaming it will be. There is always hope, and there is always a time and space for recovery.