Most parents tend to associate the phrase “eating disorders” with skeletal catwalk models or teenagers who get by on the proverbial apple a day – if that. The truth is much more insidious.
Teenagers who are sucked into the vortex of eating disorders may not even know what the underlying problems are.
It could be that someone has called them chubby, or fat. On the other hand, perhaps, they want to look good for their crush, or on the beach. Very soon, however what began as a mistaken definition of the word diet spirals out of control until the teen is swallowed by the obsession not to eat.
When someone has a problem with the image, she can either accept it, or try to alter it. Again, the altering may be done is healthy, safe reasonable ways – a new hairstyle, new clothes, different make-up, more exercise, or healthier eating; or it may be done in extreme ways… shaving off the hair, wearing eccentric make-up, OTT clothes… and extreme dieting.
There is the mistaken idea that people who are “weak” choose to have eating disorders because they cannot cope with life This is not true. After all, it takes punishing self-control not to eat when you are hungry, or to bring what you have eaten back up.
Teens who have eating disorders may be crying for attention; but they may also feel that there is an area in their life upon which they, and only they, have perfect control. Peer pressure may be a factor, too.
It goes without saying that the parent(s) who have a healthy outlook toward their own self-image, and who refrain from commenting on the size of their teens’ bodies, are less likely to have children with these problems, which take hold of a child’s life… and may ruin it.
How do you notice that a teen is on the way to having, or already has, an eating disorder? Boys as well as girls get the condition; but for the sake of clarity I will just be using “she”.
• Changes; the teen becomes finicky about minor things, choosing lettuce over cucumber, apples over peaches.
• The teen’s breath smells of acetone (nail polish remover).
• The teen is more likely to bruise if she bumps against furniture.
• She is lethargic and sleepy, and often appears to be in a world of her own.
• The teen seems suddenly aware of the nutritious value, or otherwise of certain foods, especially those she used to love before the problems began.
• They might criticise themselves, not only with regard to size, but also about looks, height, intelligence, and the ability to make friends.
• They may lie about having eaten already in order to get out of family mealtimes, or say they will eat later because they have “a lot of homework”.
• They might even show an interest in cooking up fabulous meals, and watch as others eat them.
• They might mention friends who have problems with food in order to gauge what your reaction would be if they come out.
• They will not accept that they have an eating disorder, because it robs them of the feeling of control…whereas the opposite is true.
• The consider it humiliating to be told that they need help, so parents must pussy-foot around the issue at first.
A teen who has an eating disorder will deny it, even if she knows she is unwell. That is why gentle support is necessary.
Treatment is not the same for all teens who are stricken with eating disorders. It may take the form of psychotherapy, or family therapy, support groups, nutritional consultation, and, when push comes to shove, hospitalisation.
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