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Love/Hate Relationship with Food

Children and Students with Eating Disorders

You’re a parent, and one day you accidentally walk into your teen’s room as she’s changing. You see her shoulder blades protruding from her back and you can easily count her ribs. Too shocked to know what to say, you quietly close the door and walk away.

You’re a school counselor, and a phy-ed teacher is sitting in your office. You’re discussing how to encourage the student who is struggling to keep up in class. Then you realize that low energy is only part of the problem. Another teacher whose class is near the cafeteria and the restrooms had reported that the same student had been heard throwing up in the bathroom more than once.

If it’s an eating disorder—such as anorexia (extreme weight loss), bulimia (forced vomiting), or binge-eating—how can you help?

If someone has an eating disorder, they often deny anything wrong with them. The disorder goes beyond how much they eat or don’t eat—it becomes a mental health concern while also being a physical condition that could cause serious bodily harm or even turn fatal. With today’s current culture of airbrushed models, photo filters, and the desire to look like all the slim and sexy people they see on Instagram, peer pressure becomes overwhelming as they try to fit in.

As a parent or school staff, be aware and watch for the signs of an eating disorder.

Signs of an eating disorder

These are a few of the most common signs of an eating disorder:

  • Clothes fit more loosely than before
  • Skipping meals or not eating much during a meal
  • Choosing their own foods instead of family meals or saying they’ll eat “later”
  • Worrying about being fat, talking about the need to lose weight
  • Frequent weighing
  • Exercising to excess
  • Tooth enamel damage from induced vomiting
  • Frequently using the bathroom during or immediately after a meal
  • Eating secretly
  • Taking laxatives or supplements to reduce weight
  • Mood swings or withdrawal from their usual activities
  • Irregular menstrual cycles

A person with an eating disorder often believes they’re okay, even if they’re not. Tell them that you’re concerned and ready to listen, even if they won’t admit that they have a problem. As school staff, follow the protocols that are in place at your school if you suspect a student has an eating disorder, which may include contacting their parent or guardian. As a parent, try to talk to your child and encourage them to go to the doctor.

How to encourage someone with an eating disorder

Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or even a friend:

  • Reach out, so they know you are ready to listen and help
  • Don’t judge, but remain calm and focus on what they’re feeling
  • They may not want to talk—don’t feel hurt if that happens
  • If they’re secretive, realize that it’s their illness that causes it and not you
  • Even if you want to compliment something about their appearance, don’t bring it up
  • Use “I” messages, not “you” messages: “I’m concerned when I see that you seem sad.” “I’m worried because I really care about you.”

Learn as much as you can about eating disorders, whether you suspect anorexia, bulimia, or a different one. Above all, if your child or the student persists with the behaviors, continue reaching out to them. Your encouragement may break down their walls and eventually lead them to seek treatment—for both their physical symptoms and their mental health needs.

Contact your child’s family medicine provider or a provider at Glacial Ridge Health System for ongoing help and support.