Tips for Parents
Body image issues are prevalent among college-age students. The transition into college life brings new anxieties, feelings and emotions, along with a newfound sense of control over how one treats his or her body. Students who don't know how to handle the stress of college sometimes turn to eating disorders as a way of regaining control and blocking out what is going on in their lives.
Winter break may be one of the first times you have seen your student since the summer. Knowing the signs and symptoms of the most common eating disorders and how to talk about body image issues can help you proactively address any potential concerns you notice over the upcoming weeks.
Anorexia Nervosa Signs & Symptoms
Anorexia Nervosa has four primary symptoms:
- Resistance to maintaining a body weight that is at or above normal for age and height.
- Intense fear of gaining weight and anxiety over being "fat," even if underweight.
- Disturbance in how weight or body shape is experienced, overemphasis on weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
- Amenorrhea (loss of menstrual period).
Warning signs of anorexia include: comments about being fat in spite of weight loss, refusal to eat certain foods or categories of food combined with food-related rituals, denial of hunger and excuse-making around situations involving food, and excessive and rigid exercise routines.
Bulimia Nervosa Signs & Symptoms
Bulimia Nervosa has three primary symptoms:
- Frequent intake of abnormally large quantities of food, coupled with a sense of loss of control over eating.
- Use of compensatory "purging" behaviors after binges, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse, fasting, and/or compulsive exercise.
- Extreme concern with body weight and shape.
Warning signs of bulimia include: evidence of binges such as the rapid disappearance of large amounts of food or the existence of many empty food packages; evidence of purging such as trips to the bathroom after meals, signs and/or smells of vomiting, presence of empty laxative or diuretics packages; a rigid exercise routine even if sick or injured; the creation of complex schedules or rituals to make time for binge-and-purge sessions, and withdrawing from friends and activities.
Physically, an individual with bulimia may have swelling of the cheeks or jaw, stained teeth, and calluses on hands or knuckles from vomiting.
Binge Eating Disorder (or Compulsive Overeating)
Binge eating disorder has four primary symptoms:
- Recurrent binge eating similar to bulimia without the compensatory measures to rid oneself of the food.
- Extreme discomfort from consuming large quantities of food.
- Avoidance of social activities that draw attention to one's body or involve food, or eating only small amounts around others.
- A history of cyclical dieting, depression and weight gain.
How to Help
Many individuals go through periods of disordered eating in response to transition or stress. Disordered eating behaviors do not necessarily indicate that an eating disorder exists. When eating or restricting patterns become a compulsive urge and interfere with health, social interactions and academic progress, it's likely an eating disorder has developed. At the heart of any eating disorder is a lack of emotional coping skills for dealing with stress, anxiety or trauma. The person's relationship with food becomes their mechanism for coping and a way to manage or alter mood states.
If you suspect that your student has an eating disorder:
- Learn as much as you can about eating disorders.
- Develop a support network in which you can talk openly about your feelings and frustrations—and where you can develop a plan of action to help your student.
- Directly express concern, tell your student that you care and offer to help. Share details about behaviors you have noticed that concern you the most.
- Try to be objective and calm in discussing the behaviors that concern you. Avoid offering simple solutions—if it were that easy, there would not be a problem.
- Suggest that you and your student seek professional help from a physician and/or therapist.
- Avoid making comments about his or her appearance. Concern about weight loss may be interpreted as a compliment; comments about weight gain may be felt as criticism.
- It won't help to become involved in a power struggle. You can't force the person to eat. Offer continued support and refrain from judgment.
- Try to maintain as normal and healthy a lifestyle as possible.
- Do not blame yourself.
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