You are reading the second post in a two-part series about teens and eating disorders. In the previous post we looked at the four main types of disorders with accompanying warning signs. In today’s post we will look at the next steps to take in helping your teen if an eating disorder is suspected. Counselor Michelle Horton, continues our examination into this topic.
So what do I do once I’ve identified an eating disorder in my teenager?
First things first, get your child to their pediatrician or general practitioner. Your teen’s health could possibly be in serious danger. You will want to let your doctor know ahead of time about your concerns so that can do a full physical examination as well as asking pertinent questions to ascertain your teen’s current health. Your teen’s physician will be able to have a frank conversation with your teen and recommend any follow-up examinations that might be helpful. For a more in depth look at what a comprehensive care team may look like for your teen I recommend checking out this article.
A critical second step that you must simultaneously take is finding a good biblical counselor who can walk alongside of your teen in this struggle. Too many parents make the mistake of trying to change behavior without getting their teen the emotional, spiritual and practical support that they need. Usually what ends up happening is that the teen doesn’t get better, they just get sneakier or they transfer their unhealthy behavior to something else unhealthy. A biblical counselor is crucial in helping to find the answers to those questions and to provide your teen with solid biblical counsel to help them surrender their deeper issues to God and heal. Be warned that there are many counselors out there that will only deal with the behavior or will label your child by their ED without engaging in the spiritual issues.
So what are the spiritual issues?
The ED is just what we call the “presenting problem” in the counseling room and our job is to get to the heart of the matter as we walk with your teen. In other words the ED is the manifestation of the deeper heart problems within. So what are some common themes that are often at the root of an eating disorder?
- Your teen may be obsessing over calories and weight or what food they are going to binge on that night because these areas feel easier to navigate than what’s happening in their day-to-day life. It gives them the illusion of independence.
- Difficulty in expressing emotions. If your teen is struggling with depression, anxiety, anger, etc, food can often become the way your child is silently communicating how they feel. Many teens will use food to “numb out” or to escape the emotions they are feeling rather than talking with God, you or a trusted counselor.
- Social pressure. Your teen may be comparing their body to their peers’ bodies and feeling as though they don’t measure up or their friends. Or their friends are constantly talking about calories so they do the same to fit in. This isn’t limited to “being thin.” There are some girls who will openly talk about bingeing and purging and will even swap stories on the most effective way to throw up. Others will brag about how little they have eaten that day and will become competitive with their peers in this area.
- Punishing themselves. If your teen struggles with guilt or shame, they can often use starvation, purging or bingeing as a way of punishing themselves rather than working through their guilt.
- All eating disorders have an element of deception to them whether it’s in skipping meals or eating secret ones but for some teens, deception is the major heart issue. This is typical for teens who tend to be perfectionists or feel overly responsible for other people and situations in their lives. They often put on a “perfect” public face only to go home and live in a completely different way–using food or lack thereof as a way to “release” their stress and emotions.
So how do I talk to my teen about this?
Four important things to keep in mind:
- Be calm and try to not express alarm or ask a lot of questions about the details of their eating initially. Since eating disorders are primarily a way of coping with hurt or emotions, it’s better to ask questions directed more towards the teen’s life and what’s been hard lately.
- Listen well and express unconditional love.
- Thank them for being so open. Since perfectionism, performance and fear of man often accompany eating disorders, it’s important to not make your teen feel shame by your responses. Remind them that nothing they have shared changes the way you see them or love them.
- Know that healing will take time. Depending on how long your teen has been struggling, the process of walking out of an eating disorder is one of patience and perseverance.
How do I care for my teen spiritually?
It is tempting to go straight to verses that remind your teen that their identity is in Christ but it’s MUCH more effective to listen well to what’s going on in your teen’s life and then point her to relevant biblical truths about what she is actually struggling with. For example, if your teen is being made fun of at school, helping them to see that God takes note of their misery and will walk with them through this pain is way more healing than the all too common, “Just don’t worry about what they think” response. Your teen’s counselor will also be able to keep you in the loop on important themes that they are discussing with your teen so that you can continue that teaching and support at home. At the end of the day, hold tight to the promises of Scripture that God will guide you as you walk with your teen. Trust Him as you trust those professionals who can help you through this season and most importantly, pray!