Given that eating disorders are one of the most life-threatening of all mental illnesses, the…
Why Some Parents Don’t Recognize Eating Disorders in Their Kids
At 15, Amanda’s future was looking bright. She was already a star player on her high school’s volleyball team, an honor roll student and an active volunteer at the local animal shelter. An overachiever, Amanda always watched her weight, but friends and teachers became worried when her health began to deteriorate. Eventually, after some very concerned phone calls from teachers, Amanda’s patents intervened, but by that point, her condition required medical care. During Amanda’s ordeal, many in the local community wrongly attributed her parents’ delay at getting treatment to indifference; however, there are many parents who take a long time to recognize an eating disorder in their children.
A lack of action on the parents’ behalf may appear to be indifference, but a number of factors may be at play:
Lack of focus: The modern American family often runs on a fast-paced and demanding schedule. Work, meetings, other children and extracurricular activities can leave parents drained and distracted. Many teens with eating disorders appear to be thriving, at least at first, and a distracted parent may not notice the signs until they become too severe to ignore. In addition, the symptoms of eating disorders happen slowly over time, and parents who see their children every day may not notice these changes. Often, it takes a relative or family friend who hasn’t seen the child in a while to point out his or her condition to the parents.
Parents’ own struggles with self-image: Eating disorders are at least partially genetic and often run in families. Watching their parents or another relative struggle with an eating disorder can get teens caught up in their own self image, potentially leading them to suffering from an eating disorder as well. Unfortunately, parents with eating disorders usually have a harder time recognizing the signs that their child is developing one as well.
The child’s secrecy: Many who suffer from mental health issues hide their struggle from others, and teens with eating disorders are no different. A teen may wear baggy clothing to hide his or her frame, binge in secret or insist that he or she “already ate” to avoid eating meals at home. For families living busy, hectic lives, this sort of behavior may continue for a while without being noticed.
Denial: Like many health issues, including substance addiction, eating disorders often involve plenty of denial—on the part the children suffering from them as well as their parents. A proud parent may hear of eating disorders, but too often thinks “this can never happen to my child” and ignores the warning signs, or attributes them to something else.
Cultural factors: Battling the obesity epidemic in conjunction with promoting unhealthy ideals of fitness and beauty in pop culture can send a poor message to American teens and their families. By looking out for weight gain, parents could inadvertently be ignoring, or even encouraging, unhealthy weight loss and poor self-image in their children.
With so many factors at play, one can hardly blame lack of action from Amanda’s parents and others on cruel indifference. Fortunately, Amanda’s loving parents acted quickly once they realized her struggle, and the family worked as a unit to heal together. Today, now 21, Amanda is thriving, living on her own and attending college. While happy with their daughter’s progress, Amanda’s parents admit their busy schedule and lack of knowledge delayed treatment. “I wish I knew then what I know now,” her mom says.
When it comes to eating disorders, prevention and early intervention are key. However, the lifestyle led by many modern American households fosters an environment that could prevent parents from recognizing the early signs of anorexia nervosa, bulimia or any other eating disorder. Such an environment, combined with denial, can lead even the most well-meaning parents into the trap of ignorance. Rather than dismiss the possibility of an eating disorder, it would help parents and children alike if they would learn the symptoms, break the silence if needed and foster a healthy approach to eating and self-image.