Contrary to popular belief, anorexia nervosa is not simply a reaction to media or cultural messages about thinness and beauty. Anorexia has been around for centuries and has social, familial, and possibly genetic causes. Anorexia is an eating disorder that is characterized by the gross restriction of caloric intake. While not eating or eating insubstantial quantities of food is the most common way that anorexics restrict caloric intake, this can also be achieved by purging—e.g. vomiting or using diuretics, or excessive exercise.
Anorexic behavior is most common in adolescent girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 20 and is usually driven by deep emotional pain, a high level of perfectionism, and a desire for a level of control that seems elusive in other areas of life. It is a stubborn, self-perpetuating disorder that the sufferer typically works hard to hide; because of this, it can progress undetected to a point that is physically dangerous and even life threatening.
With early detection and loving, well-informed intervention, however, anorexics can heal both physically and emotionally. Knowing the signs of anorexia and how to effectively intervene are critical to helping a loved one recover from this insidious, often deadly, disorder.
Signs of anorexia include:
- eating less,
- strange eating behavior,
- sudden weight loss or excessive thinness,
- wearing layers of clothing or baggy clothes to hide weight loss,
- obsessive talk of weight or food,
- or visible signs of chronic sickness or malnourishment.
When these signs set off alarm bells for you, it’s important that you take effective action. Knowing how to communicate your concerns and where to go for help are critical tools for intervening effectively if your daughter has an eating disorder.
Because anorexia can be so frightening for a parent or loved one, it is easy to communicate concerns out of fear, desperation, a desire to control, or even anger. It’s also common to want to monitor, point out, or control her problem behaviors. These strategies will tend to create defensiveness, anger, shame, and increased secrecy, so they’re not effective ways of approaching an anorexic young woman.
Instead, create a safe and private space to express your concerns. As scary as it can be to communicate such sensitive observations, share your concerns calmly and clearly, including specific examples of the behaviors that concern you. Offer your observations gently and let your daughter know that you are there to listen. Try to express yourself only using the first person, e.g. “I am concerned by what I’m seeing.” This is much less threatening and shaming than using “you” language, such as “you are not eating enough,” or “you need to change. “ If she initially resists your input or gets angry, do your best not to react in turn. Because her anorexia is a way of acting out extremely painful emotions, it’s likely to trigger fear and reactivity when you first bring up your concerns. Give her some space, let her know you’re still available to talk, and don’t give up. While it won’t help to badger your daughter, it’s important return to the conversation at a later time when things have cooled down and you’ve both had some space.
If your daughter will comply, a trip to the doctor’s office can help identify the extent and nature of her problem. Your physician can help determine if it is indeed anorexia and if there are any co-occurring physical or psychological issues that require treatment. When anorexia progresses to a certain point, hospitalization may be a necessary first step to ensure that the sufferer regains a healthy bodyweight. Research indicates that achieving a healthy bodyweight before or during the treatment process directly correlates to higher anorexia recovery rates.
If your daughter is resistant to your input and your requests to seek assessment or treatment, she may need a professional intervention followed by hospitalization and/or residential treatment. You can visit your physician and/or a therapist specializing in eating disorders without your daughter present. Your doctor or therapist can help you assess your daughter’s need for treatment based on your observations of her behavior. These professionals along with a special-needs educational consultant can help you select the best level and provider of care for your daughter’s specific needs.
If your daughter and family need further assistance finding help, then please contact us at 888-317-3958.