If your child had an eating disorder, would you know it? Most parents would like to think that they would. After all, who should know their child better those who raised them?
The truth, however, is more complicated. Eating disorders develop earlier than many would anticipate, driven by a host of factors, many of which are situational, acutely psychological, and hereditary.
Jennifer White, a Windsor-based clinical social worker specializing in trauma and disordered eating, shares her findings about potential triggers in young people and the important signs for which parents should remain vigilant.
Candidates for eating disorders
White recalls that her first role out of graduate school was within a disordered eating unit inside a community health centre. The experiences she had in this role were incredibly impactful; years later, she continues to provide highly specialized counselling to clients with eating disorders and the psychological challenges that accompany them.
The crossovers between mental health issues such as OCD, trauma, depression, and eating disorders are common, says White, particularly in female clients. Males are typically less likely to identify eating disorders in themselves and seek treatment, but the pressure on boys and men to adhere to a certain body standard is definitely increasing.
“The male images seen in the media are more and more outside the range of normal in the same way the female images are unrealistic.”– Jennifer White
White cites that boys are more likely to do things like use steroids and seek out other methods that are unnatural or unhealthy to try to attain a physical ideal. In this way, many boys are at risk in the same way girls are.
The cause of disordered eating
It should be noted that eating disorders themselves are a psychological disorder. Weight, culture, and socioeconomic status are not factors in determining who will develop disordered eating—these illnesses do not discriminate.
The legitimate risk factors that determine who develops an eating disorder are multifaceted. White says that the most challenging part of identifying the causes of eating disorders is their variability: the same exposure to the same factors and experiences are likely to impact individuals differently.
Considering image and the ideals that society presents to us, it’s easy to see social media as a scapegoat—especially with the rise of the filtered, edited Instagram models of recent times.
“The internet is a tool that can be used positively and destructively—it allows us to find community, which, depending on the situation, could be healthy or unhealthy. Kids are very media literate and if parents aren’t able to police their activity fast enough, what they see can influence their self-esteem before they can be shielded from it.”
Social media isn’t the only source of concern when it comes to developing disordered eating. Environment is a large contributor to the potential development of disordered eating.
Histories of trauma and bullying are major contributors—not necessarily through what has happened to us, but more how traumas might change our view of ourselves and our world. One child might be resilient to a traumatic experience, whereas another might deeply internalize it.
Emotional sensitivity and temperament can be the key differentiators in whether or not these situational factors materialize as causes of eating disorder development.
Chloe McKay, a graduate student in her mid-twenties, recalls the first time she felt dissatisfied with her body as a child, a precursor to what would eventually become an eating disorder. “The earliest I can remember feeling that I needed to lose weight was a doctor’s appointment in fourth grade. I was told that I was in the 95th percentile for age and weight, meaning I was on the obese side,” says McKay. “Nobody seemed to consider how active I was or what my muscle mass was—they just looked at my BMI chart. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me before this, but something in me changed. I felt like I was wrong, and this feeling didn’t go away.”
Family can also serve as an area of concern surrounding development of eating disorders. Studies have shown that genetic loading is a significant contributing factor in eating disorder manifestation. A 2017 study in particular illustrates that the risk of developing an eating disorder has a considerable ancestral component—inheriting copies of damaged genetics exacerbates the risk of developing these illnesses.
Beyond genetic loading, family dynamics and behavioural patterns also play a role as a risk factor for the development of eating disorders—family stressors can act as a major trigger for those already susceptible to developing them.
Where to draw the line between healthy and harmful habits
Triggers can seem somewhat innocuous, something as simple as a diet—a major reason why White is not supportive of young people participating in them.
“Diets often start with young people wanting to feel better, so they cut sugar. Then they eliminate processed food, and then might decrease portions, and eventually skip entire meals. None of these young people ever intend to have an eating disorder and don’t realize that it could happen from a diet. They figure diets are everywhere, how could they be harmful?” White says that ‘lifestyles’ of specific eating practices walk a fine line between being healthy and unhealthy.
McKay shares that as her eating became disordered, what could be viewed as ‘healthy habits’ from the outside were anything but—something even her parents were unable to detect.
“I hid what I wasn’t eating under the guise of ‘vegetarianism.’ This generally allowed me to opt-out of eating things that I felt were fattening—basically I was eating ultra-healthy to the point where I didn’t touch anything I deemed ‘unsafe.’ I stopped going out to dinner with my parents; the possibility of a restaurant not having any ‘safe’ foods made my anxiety flare.” “When you take ‘clean eating’ behaviours and these diets to the extreme, they can become a form of orthorexia,” says White, referring to a disorder whereby someone begins to display obsessive behaviours and anxiety when it comes to eating. “If the diet is unsustainable and doesn’t allow for normal socializing, we see it as restrictive and problematic as it can create an unhealthy relationship with food.”
Spot the signs
Some traits can serve as indicators of who might be at risk for developing eating disorders. One that White cites is perfectionism.
McKay echoes this
sentiment in sharing her own experiences. “My eating disorder reached its peak
in my junior year of high school—influenced by
the stresses of competing on a demanding swim team and preparing for university
applications. I felt overwhelmed, and my eating and exercise were the two areas
of my life I could control.”
For parents curious about how they can spot signs and symptoms in disordered eating in children, White notes that there are certain surprising tells that we should all remain watchful of in young people.
“For one, if children are seen to be self-isolating, becoming more withdrawn and less social after making diet changes, this could be a warning sign. If a child begins cutting out food they used to enjoy and you address this with them, an emotional reaction from them could be a major tell,” says White.
“Another behaviour to note would be them making food they used to like and serving it to others, but not partaking themselves. Be watchful if children suddenly opt-out of wanting to attend food-related events, like birthday parties or family dinners.”
McKay adds, “Pay attention to the foods your kid is eating, not just if they’re eating. Eating disorders don’t always look the way you expect them to.” If ever in doubt, the safest thing to do is seek medical attention—particularly if you notice rapid weight loss in your child.
Healthy eating habits start at home
White urges parents to encourage the type of healthy behaviours they want their kids to exhibit—this begins with holding up a mirror to their own habits.
She implores parents to not body shame themselves in front of their kids, who are incredibly perceptive. Parents should refrain from demonizing food or celebrate dieting—moralizing what foods or good or bad is more nefarious than many of us would expect.
Instead, White encourages parents to frame healthy foods as options we want more of, in contrast to less healthy foods we want less of. Removing the stigma surrounding certain foods can take away the power they wield over those trapped in dieting and disordered eating cycles.
The most effective way for parents to combat the development of eating disorders in children is to have a good relationship with their kids. During early years, through to puberty and into adolescence, it’s essential to teach young people to appreciate what their bodies do—their capabilities and what they allow us to experience.
“Gen X and millennial parents want to have a new conversation with their kids. Rather than having appearance-focused conversations about what is and isn’t good enough, a value-based perspective on kindness, working hard, and what our bodies can help us do is the better approach.”
If parents are worried about their kids’ exercise levels or potential to be overweight, the solution is to make sure healthy opportunities and options are available to children.
“Does the kid have access to fun, active activities they enjoy? Does the kid have access to a wide variety of healthy foods? These are the responsibilities of a parent,” says White.
“The best practice for those outside of the growth curve is to grow into their weight instead of dieting. If something, including bodily appearance and weight, isn’t a problem to a kid, then don’t worry too much about it or make an issue out of it.”
White shares that the first step in helping kids develop resilience to the things that might trigger an eating disorder is for parents to create an environment of trust and acceptance. This includes being sensitive to your child’s stress level and knowing when they’re overprogrammed, making sure you have downtime for them to relax, reflect, and recharge. “A household where it’s okay to talk about emotions, feelings, and needs and give voice to emotions is essential—knowing parents will listen and validate is a big protective factor for kids.”