What you should do if you suspect your friend or family member has an eating disorder
Boys and girls as young as nine and ten are presenting with eating disorders to the HSE, according to a leading Irish psychiatrist.
Dr Sarah McDevitt, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry, says it’s imperative that eating disorders are addressed in their early stages.
“At that early stage, there’s lots you can do to help a child who may be developing an eating disorder.”
“I work with adolescents but I’ve certainly been referred to children as young as nine and 10. We are seeing boys and girls presenting at that younger age. We will often have someone referred to us at the ages of 14 or 15 or even 16.”
“For children who are nine or ten, it could be the early stages of anorexia, or it could be a condition called avoidant/ restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), which is a recognised eating disorder.”
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and ARFID are the four types of eating disorders which people seek help for.
The HSE has highlighted this week, on Eating Disorder Awareness Week, some truths about eating disorders. Many people with eating disorders look healthy, for example. And eating disorders are not choices, but serious biologically influenced illnesses.
Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible, and early detection and intervention are important, the HSE has also highlighted.
For young girls and boys so attuned to technology and social media, parents can encourage healthy behaviours around food and body image, Dr McDevitt suggests.
“If parents notice their child is talking about dieting a lot, I would say it’s about bringing it back to being balanced in how they eat, and modelling that is very important.”
“It’s about asking, what are the reasons the child is not eating, is it low self-esteem? If they notice weight loss or behaviour that might be associated with an eating disorder, to contact the GP.”
“Early intervention is really very, very important. You and your GP can determine whether to bring it to the next level.”
“You could have a child who’s always been picky, but maybe they’re not growing as much as their peers, and maybe they’re falling behind in terms of their height and weight.”
“Their mood has changed, their concentration has changed. You will notice a before and after. They might be avoiding friends, or they might be irritable and moody which are symptoms of starvation on the brain.”
“The key thing is not to panic, high emotion is not helpful to someone with an eating disorder.”
A parent who is worried about a child developing an eating disorder should communicate that to their child, Dr McDevitt suggests.
“In your heart, of course you’re panicking, but if your worried about an eating behaviour, try and open up with the child, and say ‘I think I’m going to call the GP because I’m worried about you and I care about you’.”
“The main thing is to look out for the symptoms and signs. If your child seems very preoccupied by their appearance. Maybe they’re always checking Instagram and missing their meals and uncomfortable eating in front of friends.”
“Noticing behaviours and signs of weight loss can be the first issue. Having the conversation with the child is important, and if they’re very unrealistic about how they’re seeing themselves, saying ‘no I’m fat’ when they’re not, I would suggest giving the GP a call.”
Early intervention for eating disorders is key, according to Dr McDevitt, who says children and teenagers with these illnesses are seen quickly in the HSE.
“If a parent was concerned, as well as going to the GP, there’s some really good information on the Bodywhys website, which has a whole information area on what parents can do.”
She added: “One of the key things if you’re a friend or a brother or sister, try to do the normal things and treat them normally. Someone with an eating disorder, they can miss out on the normal things because it’s so stressful for them. To have a brother you can have a laugh with, and have trust and support and a friendly ear, that’s important.”
“Obviously if you’re a best friend and you know each other’s families, you might say it to your mum and dad to say it to their mum and dad. Also say to your friend ‘I need to say it to someone because I’m really worried about you’.”
“A 15 year-old shouldn’t be holding that information so it’s important that they can hand over that information and have the adults deal with something that’s really for adults to deal with,” she added.