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Psychotherapist Sylvia Kerr shares some tips on how to identify the early signs, start a dialogue and take action with your teen if you suspect he or she is suffering from an eating disorder.
1. Identify the signs
If your teen has developed a newfound fixation on healthy eating and an active lifestyle, it could be an early indication of an unhealthy reinterpretation of food. Pay attention to that fixation to see if it develops into actual dietary changes and unhealthy ideas about food.
"Healthy eating is too often a socially sanctioned gateway for unhealthy weight loss - weight loss, which in no time, could and often does get out of control," says Kerr. "You might notice dietary behavioural changes, such as actually starting a diet, steadily cutting back on favourite treats, cutting back on carbs and eliminating junk foods, including fats or entire food groups, from the diet," she explains.
Other signs of an eating disorder are less obvious than rapid weight loss. In the more advanced stages of an eating disorder, indicators extend beyond the physical. "You might notice changing sleep patterns, mood swings, loss of appetite, excuses when invited to eat with the family, a sudden or deepening interest in cookbooks and recipes, volunteering to bake for the family and evidence of laxative use and loss of monthly period," says Kerr.
2. Educate yourself
Eating disorders are a complex psychological issue and every case is different. Researching and reading about eating disorders will give you more confidence in speaking with your teen about them. The more educated you are about the subject the easier it will be to offer support.
"In doing your background work, you will note that the diagnosis and effective management of eating disorders takes into account both the physical and the psychological well-being of the person and family being affected," says Kerr. "This is something to keep in mind when you attempt a balanced discussion with your teen."
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3. Talk to your teen
It may be difficult to broach the topic, but your teen will probably appreciate you addressing the situation, and your child's health and your family's relationship will be better for it.
"Be aware that the evidence you found or behavioural changes you noticed might have been left for you as an invitation for you to start the discussion," says Kerr. So be perceptive to the small signs your teen is calling for help. "All my clients in that situation privately confess a sense of relief that the secret is out," she adds.
4. Start a collaborative dialogue
"You'll have a more productive conversation if you open with a collaborative approach versus a corrective one," says Kerr. One way to do this is to introduce a hypothetical situation and to ask your teen his or her opinion.
"The conversation may flow more smoothly if both you and your teen speak in the third person," Kerr suggests. For instance, you could ask your teen: "How would you know if someone in your school had an eating disorder? If a friend who told you they had an eating disorder asked for help, what do you think would be the most helpful thing to do for them?"
Questions like these will allow you to gain insight into your teen's perspective without being accusatory.
5. Remain calm and collected
It's important to keep your emotions at bay when you speak with your teen about a potential eating disorder. "If you are the one falling to pieces, they will be less likely to confide in you again for fear of hurting you or triggering another stressful situation for the both of you," says Kerr. "Yet you also need to remain open and appropriately sensitive to the challenges that may have brought your teen to this point," she adds.
The level of openness will vary with every unique relationship. If you and your teen are close you may feel at ease sharing your emotions together. If not, you may need to adopt the strong and wise persona that your teen requires at this time.
6. Find the right help
There's only so much help a parent can provide to a teen who is suffering from an eating disorder. After you've talked with your child and established a need for professional help, it's important to find the right source.
"Be sure to interview the practitioner about their experience as this is an area requiring specialist expertise. The right specialist can help nip the problem in the bud or orient you to the appropriate level of care in a timely fashion," says Kerr. If you feel comfortable, finding the right practitioner is something you and your teen can do together.
While there are no black and white guidelines for identifying an eating disorder, you probably know your teen's habits better than you think. A significant change in diet is at least grounds for a discussion. From there, you should be able to discern whether or not further action is needed.
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