Do You Know What Your Tween Is Not Eating?

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SARAH noticed that her daughter Anne was leaving to go to the bathroom frequently during dinner. This act might have seemed like little more than a urinary tract infection were it not coupled with the performance that encompassed mealtime. “She was making a show of eating, but not much was actually going in,” said Sarah.

HEATHER, a former tween model, exercised three hours per day and ate only fruits and vegetables. “At one point she started eating only baby food.”

BRENNA, now 14, was 12 when she learned some tricks from pro-ANA sites (pro-anorexia Websites). “I learned how to get to the garbage disposal while mom was out of the room. I would go out with friends, but I’d order water and pull onions out of onion rings. I pushed food around a lot and hid it in napkins. I tried to never eat more than 200 calories a day. Food frightened me and the girls on the Web forum supported me. I felt this was normal and everyone else was a pig. My mom is fat and I don’t want to be like her – ever.”

In North America, five of every 100 adolescents suffer from unhealthy obsessions with food, according to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. With the rate of the diagnoses growing steadfastly across North America, this raises the question: How much do parents really know about disordered eating?

“It’s just a harmless phase.”  WRONG
Up to 20 percent of children with eating disorders die, according to Eating Disorders: A reference
sourcebook. The annual death rate associated with anorexia is more than 12 times higher than the death rate due to all other causes combined for females between the ages of 15 and 24 years of age. Those who survive the aftermath of disordered eating are plagued with other
problems, warns Merryl Bear, director of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDC). These ailments would include (but are not limited to) cardiac and blood issues, circulation problems, damage to the digestive system and kidneys, low bone density and electrolyte abnormalities, which can lead to confusion, seizures, coma and death.
Former tween model, Heather, still suffers permanent damage to her neck and back due to over exercising, and now endures chronic pain. “When I was in Milan,” she remembers, “I fractured my foot, and I kept working out until the injury turned into three stress fractures. I ditched my cast in the bushes when I arrived at a model casting and walked in as though my leg was fine.”

“Good thing I have a son. They don’t deal with this nonsense.” 

According to Bear, the number of males with disordered eating – one male for every 20 disordered females – is on the rise. Boys are expected to take charge, but “they may displace anxieties and control over their bodies with dieting and exercise,” which provides a sense of direction, control and achievement. Boys and men are increasingly being marketed a narrow, physical ideal: slender, though muscular, bodies are portrayed as bringing all sorts of success. If they don’t work for this body, the message is that they are lazy, incompetent and worthless.”

“All an anorexic needs to do is to eat a sandwich.”  WRONG
Heather is now an activist mom and owner of the blog Mamavision. “It seems so preposterous,” she says. “I remember one eating disorder sufferer told me she went to Emergency after passing
out from not eating. The doctor told her to go home and eat a bagel.” Bear says: “Many of the features of an eating disorder encompass self-discipline, perfectionism and wanting to please
others – traits that are socially desirable in females. Parents need to learn as much as they can about eating disorders before confronting their child, and they need to provide security and
structure from which the child will begin to relinquish food and weight preoccupation.” This is not something than can be fixed with a bagel.

“My child doesn’t read fashion magazines or watch TV. She’s safe.”  WRONG

An alarming trend is developing on the Internet. A 2006 survey at Stanford Medical School found that 35.5 percent of eating disorder patients had visited pro-ANA (anorexia) and pro MIA
(bulimia) Websites; of those, 96 percent learned new weight loss or purging methods from such sites.
“Why is no one screaming from the rooftops about this?” asks Heather, who now helps educate parents regarding issues surrounding disordered eating and online peer pressure. “We have a
generation of women posting semi-nude images of themselves to show off their bones and nobody seems to care.”
In the process of searching for the helpful blogs and forums, young people are more likely to find the pro disordered eating sites first.
Learning what you’re dealing with is the best way to plan to tackle the problem. Let them know you love them enough to check on their online activity. Most children know to delete history, but they might not have deleted the temp files. Go to Tools/Options/Settings/ View files to see where they really have been going. Discuss anything disturbing you find with them. is a positive anonymous message board where Heather (and others) encourages individuals to reach out and seek help. “Sometimes the first step is to just get kids talking to realize they have a problem.”

“We’ll put her in group therapy. No problem.”  MAYBE
It’s not always that easy, says Heather. “Eating disorders have exploded due to society’s mixed messages about food, obesity and the fashion/media influence.” It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that there are kids using therapy to promote support for the disorder.
Anne tried group therapy but met a girl who weighed less than 80 pounds and had been in and out of hospital on forced feedings. “The saddest part,” says Sarah, “was the admiration of
some of the other girls in the group. Anne was eventually sickened by the adoration, and stopped going to the group. She was afraid she would end up admiring someone who was
dying, too.”
The good news is that there are varied therapy and treatment options available for sufferers of disordered eating, including group therapy, and many are as close as a Web click or a
call to a family physician.

What is a parent to do?
informed parents and adult mentors help children to develop critical
thinking skills, healthy self esteem and positive body image, and can
put physical appearance and food into healthy context,” says Bear.
all of Anne’s struggles,” says Sarah, “she knew it wasn’t right to want
to be skin and bones and she fights against that mindset all the time. I
want her to know that regardless of her weight, I love her, and I’ll be
there for her.”
Brenna, however, doesn’t know if her mom truly
understands her eating disorder. “I passed out at church and she’s been
doing her best to keep me eating, but I don’t know how to tell her
I’m still afraid of food. I’m still afraid of looking like her. I just want to feel good about myself.”

WARNING SIGNS of disordered eating:

• Excessive concern about weight, shape and calories
• Tendency towards perfectionism and self criticism
• Guilt, shame or secrecy associated with eating
• Increasingly vigorous exercise routines
• Strict avoidance of certain foods, particularly those considered ‘fattening’
• Feeling fat regardless of body size (body dysmorphic disorder)
• Weight and food control determining feelings about his/her worth

Merryl Bear, Director, National Eating Disorders Information Centre

TERMS Parents should know:

encompassing pathological fear of weight gain leading to faulty eating
patterns, malnutrition and usually excessive weight loss.

overeating usually followed by self-induced vomiting or laxative or
diuretic abuse, often accompanied by guilt and depression.

Compulsive overeating not accompanied by purging.

Person exercises vigorously to the point of obsession.

Deliberately regurgitating food back into the mouth to either re-chew, re-swallow or to spit it out.

Abnormal preoccupation for non-nutritive substances such as plaster, dirt or blood.

A lack of appetite during the day leading to overeating at night.

Compulsion to eat only healthy types of foods to control weight.

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