Eating Disorders in Young People
A Parent's Guide
No one can deny that it's hard to be a young person today. In fact they may be under more pressure than ever before in a wide number of ways. These may include in their education, their social world and even in the care they feel they have to take in their appearance.
So it's not really surprising that an estimated 725,000 people in the UK are affected by eating disorders. Young women, typically in their teens, are the most commonly affected group although 10% of sufferers are male. The Priory Group have put together a parent's guide on eating disorders.
What Eating Disorders Are
As the name suggests, when a person has an eating disorder, they do not have a normal relationship with the food they eat. This generally takes one of three forms.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a sufferer has a great fear of gaining weight as well as an unrealistic body image. As a result they limit their food intake even to the point of starvation which can cause them to become dangerously thin.Bulimia nervosa sufferers binge-eat, often consuming three or four times a normal day's amount of
food, and then make themselves sick or take laxatives to avoid putting on weight.
Atypical eating disorders can include many of the behaviours associated with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa but because the sufferer's condition does not exactly match the diagnostic measures for either condition the illness is given this title.
Who Typically Suffers?
The most common sufferers of eating disorder are young women between the ages of 14 and 25. As previously mentioned, 10% of sufferers are male.
The Effects of Eating Disorders
The different eating disorders have different effects and these can be divided into the short and the long term.
In the short term, people with anorexia will have significant weight loss and may also grow less than expected. Other physical effects may be a slowing of the heart rate, low blood pressure and constipation. Longer term effects can include disruption of the menstrual cycle and infertility, brittle bones, exhaustion, lack of concentration and social isolation.
Effects for bulimia sufferers can include damage to internal organs due to a deficiency of vital minerals and gastrointestinal problems. Over time, excessive vomiting can also erode tooth enamel, cause sore throats and swollen cheeks and damage vocal chords.
The Causes of Eating Disorders
There are a number of reasons why a young person may develop an eating disorder. Teenagers are particularly susceptible to worries about the image they present to the world which may lead to them trying to control their weight. Other causes can include a change of school, problems at home, felling peer pressure to change and being a victim of bullying.
It's also been found that many sufferers are perfectionists who feel emotions particularly strongly.
There's also some evidence that some people may be genetically predisposed to developing an eating condition.
Spotting the Signs
People with anorexia usually show a number of signs which include eating and drinking very little and having an unusual interest in food and weight. They may also do a great deal of exercise.
Sufferers of bulimia also show an abnormal interest in food and weight as well as often being prone to vomiting soon after eating.
Both illnesses typically have psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
When You Suspect Someone Has an Eating Disorder
If you are worried that a young person has an eating disorder the first thing to do is talk to them. Try to discover any worries that they may have which may be affecting their attitude to food.
You should also do all you can to encourage a healthy attitude to eating perhaps by having more meals as a family. It may also be worth having a word with your child's school as they could also have noticed signs that something may not be quite right.
It's Important to Keep Calm
Your support and encouragement is vital. That's why any conversations you have should be non-judgemental and supportive.
You should also remember that even if the young person begins by denying that there's anything wrong, and even get angry with you for suggesting it, in time they may well decide to open up toy you.
Getting Professional Help
The first person to contact if you do decide you need professional help is the young person's GP. They will be able to tell you about the sorts of treatments available and be able to make any referrals that might be needed.
Most cases are effectively handled by an out-patient support team that can give dietary advice, offer psychotherapies and monitor physical and mental health.
Between 10% and 20 % of young people need more intensive in-patient treatment which is available both on the NHS and through private providers such as The Priory Group.