More than 10 million American children attend camp each summer. For all the great things about camp, it may also be a place where children, away from parental supervision for weeks or even months, can develop disordered eating behaviors, say experts.
"Every year, we see many young patients who cite summer camp as the place where their disordered eating behaviors either began or intensified," said Jamie Manwaring, PhD, primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center's Behavioral Hospital for Children and Adolescents in Denver, Colorado. "It is important to recognize that summer camps do not ‘cause' eating disorders; however, camps' environments can often be triggering for a child with the genetic or temperamental predisposition for an eating disorder."
Tweens and teens prone
The onset of puberty, typically occurring between the ages of 10 and 14 for girls and 12 and 16 for boys, is one of the two most common times when eating disorders develop. Particularly prone are children in this age range who have:
- a family history of eating disorders
- previously engaged in disordered eating; or
- highly sensitive, perfectionistic temperaments.
Potentially triggering activities or situations may include:
- a competitive athletic environment;
- exposure to bunkmates' or friends' disordered eating behaviors, and
- an intense focus on health and nutrition or anxiety about trying to "fit in" with new camp friends.
Without ongoing parental supervision, children who begin engaging in disordered eating behaviors will often maintain, or intensify them throughout the duration of camp without their parents' knowledge.
Tips for parents
To help parents plan a healthy, fun camp experience for their children and proactively practice eating disorders prevention, Eating Recovery Center offers these five tips:
- Mealtime environment: Look into the way meals are structured at your child's camp. Are mealtimes staffed so that camp counselors sit with campers and are available to notice if a child has stopped eating or drastically changed his or her eating habits?
- Sports camp versus all-around: Do some comparative research if you intend on sending your child to a sports camp. Children with a family history of eating disorders may be better suited at a camp that is focused on recreation and fun, rather than one that is focused on competition and intense fitness.
- Send your child to camp with positive messages. Emphasize to your child that the goal of summer camp is to have fun and meet new friends. Remind your children that you love them for who they are, not what specific activities they excel at, and that it does not matter if they are the fastest runners or strongest swimmers at camp.
- Check in with your child while he or she is at camp. Use phone calls, emails and letters as an opportunity to ask open-ended questions about his or her camp experience. Look and listen for any sudden changes in your child's overall outlook.
- Keep an eye out for signs of eating disorders when your child returns home from camp:
- Is your child eating smaller portions or restricting certain foods altogether?
- Has eating become a power struggle?
- Has your child's exercise regimen significantly increased or have you "caught" him or her exercising in secret?
- Do you suspect purging after meals?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it may be time to seek help for a potential eating disorder.
Early intervention saves lives
"When parents see children after they have been away at a month- or summer-long camp, changes in body weight, overall health, general demeanor and outlook can become that much more noticeable," explains Dr. Manwaring. "If your child exhibits worrisome behaviors after returning home, do not wait to seek help. With eating disorders, the earlier the intervention, the more successful the treatment will be. Early intervention saves lives."
Parents are encouraged to seek an eating disorders assessment if they notice troubling behaviors in their children or adolescents when they return home from camp. Eating disorders recovery is entirely possible with early intervention and proper treatment from qualified professionals.