Eating disorders can be easy to hide. Know what to look for.

Often when I work with parents they say they had no idea their child’s eating disorder was going on as long as it was. Eating disorders are easy to hide so it’s important, as a parent to be aware of what signs you should look for in your child.

Eating disorders are secretive and can be very easy to hide from loved ones, especially in the beginning. Sometimes, the person experiencing an eating disorder is not fully aware that what they are doing is not healthy so it makes it that much more important for parents to be fully educated on what to look for and what to do if they suspect an eating disorder is developing. Often eating disorders occur in those that are successful and bright. It can be hard to associate the word “disorder” with someone who has seems to have it together and is doing well on the outside.

When the Mind Becomes Hijacked by an Eating Disorder

I’ve worked with clients in eating disorder recovery who often look back at the behaviors they were engaging in months ago and are shocked that they did not fully realize what they were doing. Sometimes people refer to an eating disorder as feeling like a “zombie” or an “out of body experience” where it does not feel like the actual person. The mind is not rational and their thinking is distorted. But they are not able to see that until they start their recovery journey and find their healthy self again. Getting your healthy self back and finding complete recovery from an eating disorder is absolutely possible! Catching it in its early stages always helps.

An eating disorder is all encompassing. However, it does not start out this way, it can start slowly and if it goes unnoticed (which happens often) an eating disorder grows and becomes stronger, making it harder to treat. This is why it’s so important for parents to monitor their child’s eating behaviors and have conversations around how they feel about their body image.

It’s important to remember that eating disorders can affect boys as well as girls. Movies portray eating disorders to fit a certain stereotype when in actuality eating disorders can impact people of all races, genders and backgrounds. There are often different signs to look for in boys versus girls for eating disorder behaviors. Below are signs to look for in your adolescent daughter.

Eating Disorder Red Flags:

Body image issues:

  • This can encompass a wide array of things to monitor. If she’s uncomfortable being in a bathing suit, if she resists back to school shopping, or if she talks about her weight and body shape in a negative way.
  • If she only wears certain clothes to help cover up the areas that she is embarrassed about on her body. This can be anywhere on the body from her neck, to stomach or legs.
  • You may notice during the summer months she is eating less, making comments about areas of her body she is not happy with or feels more anxious/depressed. Summer months are extremely hard for those who struggle with body image issues and bathing suit season can often lead to increased eating disorder behaviors. If your daughter is starting to develop body image issues this alone is a good reason to find a therapist to connect with and help her work through her negative body image.

Negative Reactions Around Food:

  • If she feels guilty or depressed after eating something that she believes is unhealthy, will make her gain weight or “feels fat” after eating one thing. These are signs of fear foods that she is developing and often leads to restricting and creating food rules.
  • If she feels uncomfortable eating in front of other people, in public places or at school.
  • If she is hiding food that she ate in her bedroom or you find wrappers of candy, chips, etc. this can be a common occurrence with binge eating disorder.

Perfectionist Personality and Mood Disorders:

  • If she tends to have a perfectionist personality, uses black and white thinking and is hard on herself. Perfectionism is a very common personality trait for those who suffer from eating disorders.
  • Any history and/or current anxiety, OCD or major depression can underlie an eating disorder and the eating disorder behaviors are ways of expressing the mood disorder.

The Bottom Line

If you suspect that your daughter is suffering from body image issues and/or an eating disorder have her get an assessment from a therapist that specializes in eating disorder treatment. If you suspect that there is an issue, often that suspicion is accurate. There are many different forms of eating issues outside of the bulimia and anorexia diagnosis. Disordered eating and binge eating disorder are often missed but can still be very impairing and deserve professional treatment.

One mistake I sometimes see is that parents write it off as “normal teen girl behavior” and wait until it’s become more severe to get help. Eating disorders are often much worse and more far along than they appear at the surface, which is why an assessment is important. Getting help early is vital to your child’s health and wellbeing. Getting an assessment could save her life.