Watching a child suffer from an eating disorder can be devastating for parents, especially if they're told they're to blame. The truth is, while no one fully understands what causes these illnesses, we do know that for children and teens, parents are usually a crucial part of the solution.
Step one is recognizing the problem. Here are five warning signs that your child may be dealing with anorexia or another eating disorder.
1. Weight stagnation or loss. Weight gain typically continues into the early 20s. So if your child or teen continues to grow but doesn't gain weight—especially in early adolescence, when most growth takes place—she or he may be in the early stages of an eating disorder. And any weight loss, even unintentional, may trigger an eating disorder in vulnerable children.
2. Anxiety. It's common to see an uptick in anxiety in a child who's developing an eating disorder. Often this anxiety follows weight loss, but sometimes it comes before any noticeable changes in weight. Increased anxiety can be both a precursor to and a byproduct of anorexia.
3. Unusual food behaviors. People with anorexia sometimes develop unusual behaviors around food. A few of the most common: Cutting food into tiny pieces; using large quantities of condiments (mustard, salt, soy sauce, etc.); suddenly insisting on using particular spoons, forks, cups, or plates for eating or drinking; cutting out whole categories of food for any reason (including meats—an interest in vegetarianism can mark the start of an eating disorder).
4. A sudden interest in cooking (but not eating). People who are malnourished often develop an interest bordering on obsession with the trappings of eating, including shopping for food and cooking. If your child starts cooking up a storm but finds reasons not to eat her own cooking, that's a red flag.
5. Compulsive exercising and/or other obsessive behaviors. Eating disorders are illnesses of compulsions. If your child or teen builds her day around exercise, she may be tipping into an exercise obsession. This can be especially tough to sort out if she's on an athletic team, where rigorous daily training is often required. One key is her anxiety level: Does she panic if something keeps her from her daily routine? Does she insist on exercising even when she's injured or sick? These are worrisome signs.
Harriet Brown is the author of Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle With Anorexia.