Encourage healthy growth by offering eating disorder education to the wildflower that is your teenager.
Sometimes parents are afraid that educational materials about eating disorders will stimulate an eating disorder in their teenager. Parents also fear such material will encourage a teenager with an eating disorder to try new and different methods of acting out the illness. Sometimes loving parents are afraid to know specific information about eating disorders themselves. They think that if they ignore the subject it will keep the disorder out of their lives.
Overall Benefits of Eating Disorder Education
I want to reassure parents that information about eating disorders will not cause an eating disorder to develop in their child. By the same token, such information will not cure a person of any age who is suffering from an eating disorder. Treatment consisting of compassion, understanding and specific clinical expertise is required for recovery.
However, while eating disorder educational programs will not cause or cure an eating disorder, such programs have many benefits for both parents and teens. Programs can:
- Alert parents and children to the nature of eating disorders.
- Show the physical and psychological risks involved in acting out an eating disorder.
- Explain how to recognize when they or someone they know needs help.
- Describe many ways to start treatment and bring help and guidance to teens with an eating disorder and their families.
- And most importantly, show parents and teens that they can talk about eating disorders with each other. They can share, be open and loving while they remove barriers that might keep the subject a secret.
Why Educational Programs are Needed
These educational programs are needed because often early stages of an eating disorder go unrecognized by everyone, including the person with the disorder. Everyone eats. Plus, there are many ways of eating and not eating that are socially sanctioned for particular occasions.
For example, it's socially acceptable to eat junk food, even large quantities of it, at parties or at the movies. It's also socially acceptable to diet and try fad diets that might include fasting. It has become socially acceptable to acknowledge 'comfort foods' such as chocolate or ice cream as means of coping with stress or disappointment.
It would be difficult to distinguish a newly forming bulimic from a non-bulimic person when both are devouring lots of sweets and treats at a pajama party. It would be difficult to distinguish a newly forming anorexic teen-ager from her teenage friends when they are all experimenting with exotic diets and judging every aspect of their body as too fat.
Plus, the anorexic/bulimic who is first experimenting with vomiting is usually not worried or frightened. She's often happy at discovering a 'trick' to help her think she is avoiding the consequences of holding and digesting any food she eats. She doesn't know herself that she has found a dangerous activity that dulls her ability to feel, to be aware of her surroundings and to respond in a healthy way to stress in her life.
Parents may be reassured to know that eating disorder education might be a wake up call that jars the consciousness of young people in an early stage of an eating disorder. Through education a young girl might recognize herself as being on her way to having a serious disorder.
If she knows the symptoms, knows there is supportive and caring help available and knows how to ask for that support and help she has an opportunity to get some early healing. With encouragement and support from adults and peers in her environment she has a chance of redirecting herself before the disorder advances to relationship destroying and life destroying levels.
Benefits to Parents
Eating disorder education can help parents become less fearful and more understanding if their child does have an eating disorder. Parents can be empowered to lovingly and more confidently support the healing efforts required for their child to recover. With education and informed family support, their child may be more willing and capable of doing the necessary healing work.
Early education presented clearly and sensitively with regard to the developmental stage of the audience can stimulate awareness of eating disorders as the dangerous illnesses they are. Such programs can help parents and teens to recognize the physical and emotional symptoms of eating disorders and the understanding and compassion required to begin healing.
Parents in support of eating disorder education programs help encourage and develop in their communities the informed and caring family cooperation necessary for eating disorder prevention and healing. In this way parents can help their wildflower teens grow up healthy and free.
Joanna Poppink, MFT, Los Angeles eating disorder recovery psychotherapist.