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Weighty issues - Eating disorders

An eating disorder is a serious condition that is more to do with emotions than with food. Carmel Doyle talks to Bodywhys’ Ruth Ní Eidhin about what to do if you think your child could have an eating disorder

Carmel Doyle

Published 26/03/2011 | 08:00

If being a teenager wasn’t hard enough – coping with exam pressures, discovering who you are as well as trying to fit in – some kids may also develop an eating disorder, which can often be very difficult for a parent to detect.

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This is because one of the classic symptoms of an eating disorder is that the sufferer will do their utmost to hide it from loved ones, making it a very lonely condition as well as being a debilitating and potentially life-threatening one in extreme cases.

Furthermore, with the rise of social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo over the past few years, this has added another visual element into the equation. Children are now exposed to more media images in a day than their parents might have been exposed to in an entire adolescence, thus putting increased pressure on teens to brand themselves online and be accepted.

According to the national voluntary organisation Bodywhys - The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, 200,000 people are affected by eating disorders in this country. A 2007 study carried out by Professor Fiona Mc-Nicholas found that 1.2pc of Irish girls may be at risk of developing anorexia nervosa, while 2pc may be at risk of developing bulimia nervosa. In addition, 27.2pc were found to exhibit clinical levels of bulimia.

But what exactly is an eating disorder and how can parents address a situation if they believe their son or daughter might be at risk?

“An eating disorder is a serious mental health condition, primarily characterised by disturbances in eating behaviours. It’s about behaviours around food and diet and the medical complications that can arise because of those behaviours,” says Ruth Ní Eidhin, communications offi cer at Bodywhys.

“Also, it’s about the emotional issues that are underlying the eating disorder. An eating disorder is a coping mechanism. It would be a way that the person has developed to manage or try to cope with an issue that they haven’t or can’t otherwise address.”

Parental concerns

If you are concerned that your child might have an eating disorder, Ní Eidhin says you should:

? Read all you can about eating disorders

? Look for support groups

? Speak to your family doctor if you have specific medical concerns.

She also suggests that parents make a note of what’s been happening, recording specific incidences such as skipped meals, over-exercising and frequent bathroom trips.

“It’s important to think of it not in terms of the food because it’s not about food,” stresses Ní Eidhin.

“It’s such an emotive situation, so you need to be able to approach it in as calm and measured way as possible. Sit down with your child and say: ‘Listen, I want to talk about what’s been going on with you’, noting these behaviours have been happening and not just asking: ‘Why aren’t you eating?’ Give them the space to talk about what has developed into them feeling the need to engage in these behaviours.”

But what if your child doesn’t want to talk?

“Ultimately that is the top question we get from parents. The majority of people will not want to be confronted about an eating disorder,” she explains.

“This is because if you look at an eating disorder as a coping mechanism, your child’s first fear is you are going to take away their coping mechanism.”

Ní Eidhin says parents need to reassure their child that they are not asking them to change their behaviours immediately.

“But you are saying that in the longer term you need to fi nd a healthier coping mechanism and that you’re going to work with them.”

Treat your GP as a gateway

Your GP is generally your first port of call, as they are a gateway to other treatment options.

Ní Eidhin advises: “The first thing is a full medical assessment – how much weight has the person lost, has the person stopped menstruating, have physical side effects taken place. Blood tests will also be done.

“The other side is what type of supports the person may need in terms of counselling or psychotherapy, maybe going to see a psychiatrist. In extreme cases they may need an out or an in-patient treatment option.”

Mental health condition

What makes an eating disorder more complicated is it’s a mental health condition, but it has physical effects as well, she says.

“In terms of a recovery process you really need to make sure that both the physical and mental sides of the situation are being dealt with.

“The vast majority of people would work with their GP and then maybe some form of talk therapy as well.”

For parents, she says it’s vital to reassure your child as much as possible, telling them that recovery takes time, that they can get better and they will be supported in getting better.

Family supports

Bodywhys also has separate support groups for family and friends. “If one person develops an eating disorder it is likely to affect the entire family. It is important to say to parents to get support for themselves,” says Ní Eidhin.

“And from your child’s perspective, as with any mental health issue, it’s so important that people feel they can talk about it.

“Having an eating disorder can be incredibly isolating, as the person will change their behaviours not just in terms of their food but also their overall mood and their activities. If the person is ready to move towards recovery, the first thing is to start talking, saying: ‘Yes, this is going on for me, I need to get help. I might not be ready to go get the help yet but I’ll allow you to tell someone that I need to get help’.”

Bodywhys’ services are supportoriented, with a Lo-Call helpline, support groups, online support groups and email support services. Eating Disorders – a Resource for Parents is a specific resource that Bodywhys has developed for parents.

To receive a copy of Eating Disorders – a Resource for Parents, text the word PARENTS followed by your name and postal address to 51500. (Text charged at standard text rate).

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