If you are a parent of a child beginning middle school, high school or college this fall, you should be especially vigilent for early signs of eating disorders.
The reason, says a 2012 study from the Journal of Clinical Nursing, is that significant transitions, as well as a lack of support following traumatic life events, can lead to disordered eating, with school transition identified by researchers as one of the six main factors triggering eating disorders among study participants.
Children and adolescents who are high-achieving, perfectionists and who have highly sensitive temperaments are generally at a higher risk than other children for developing an eating disorder. For these individuals, unhealthy coping mechanisms may be utilized to manage the stressors associated with significant life changes.
School transition experiences, such as adapting to a new environment, meeting increased academic demands, struggling with social pressures and grappling with the physiological changes that occur during adolescence, can create a perfect storm in which an individual with a highly sensitive temperament or a genetic predisposition for an eating disorder may turn to disordered eating behaviors as a way of managing their anxiety or coping mechanism.
Parents can help
To you manage your child's transition to a new school environment and minimize the risk of eating disorders, here are five back-to-school tips designed to help promote healthy attitudes about food and body shape and size:
- Look for warning signs. Although weight loss can be an indicator of disordered eating, it may not be immediately apparent. A child may be displaying signs of an eating disorder if their schoolwork and grades begin to suffer, or if they becomes socially withdrawn and increasingly anxious, or tired and lethargic. Another possible sign: your child begins wearing roomier or layered clothing, even on warm days.
- Avoid comments about your child's body shape or size. When shopping for new school clothes avoid commenting on your child's weight or body size and instead focus on his or her preferences regarding color, style, etc.
- Talk about peer pressure, alcohol use. If your son or daughter is going off to college for the first time, have an honest conversation about peer pressure and the dangers of replacing food calories with alcohol calories; and discuss the physical consequences of disordered eating and drinking behaviors, such as liver damage from excessive alcohol consumption or the significant internal damage poor nutrition can cause.
- Advise teen athletes not to overtrain. Remind your teenage athlete not to overdo his or her training in an effort to make a high school sports team. Watch for signs of over-exercise, such as sports preparation when he or she is injured or sick, or exercise that significantly interferes with daily activities and schoolwork.
- Be a positive body role model. When helping an adolescent recover from the body-focused bullying that can sometimes accompany going back to school, a parent who has positive body image will have far more credibility than one who consistently criticizes his or her own looks.
It is important to remember that what triggers an eating disorder may not be what perpetuates it. Though school transition pressures may have precipitated an eating disorder, the factors that allow it to continue are often complex. Early intervention and treatment from qualified eating disorders professionals are essential to maximize opportunities for lasting recovery.
Julie Holland, MHS, CEDS, is Chief Marketing Officer for the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, Colorado. Prior to joining the center she directed marketing and customer relationship management programs at several leading eating disorder treatment programs, and maintained private practices in the U.S. and Bermuda, where for 24 years she specialized in the treatment of self-esteem, eating and body image issues for adults and adolescents. An Approved Supervisor for the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals , she is also the Director of Certification for iaedpTM - the only certification worldwide for eating disorders professionals.