On Your Mind: Could it be an eating disorder?

on your mindMy 13-year-old daughter has lost weight and seems to be obsessed with how much she eats, calories, fat grams, sugar, etc. My husband and I are worried that she could have an eating disorder. Can you give us some advice on how to talk to her about this without causing her to feel like we’re accusing her of something or like we’re trying to control her? What type of doctor do we take her to for an accurate diagnosis?

Response by Sara Laughinghouse, LPC

First and foremost, thank you for reaching out and noticing the changes in your daughter. It is difficult during the teenage years to know what is ‘normal adolescent development’ and what is a more serious issue. I commend you for taking note that your daughter appears to be losing weight and is hyper focused on her food intake. The good news is there are ways to talk to her and gain more understanding as to what is going on.

My first suggestion would be to schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. This is a great place to start because you can present your information and the physician can rule out any medical concerns.  Also, this allows you to begin the conversation. Simply letting your daughter know what you’re noticing can open the door to the conversation you want.

This is where I suggest you use empathy because you don’t want to push her away. However, something as simple as, “I’ve noticed you’ve lost some weight lately. We want to do a check-in with our doctor to make sure everything is okay,” opens the door to the conversation and the doctor’s visit. Statements of observation keep things simple and do not point blame, allowing the dialogue to open.

You can use information from the doctor’s visit to piggy-back the conversation even further. Try to remember to state your observations and concerns versus blaming or suggesting such as, “you-type statements.”  This will allow your daughter to feel that she can trust you and gives her that sense of control you mentioned.

Speaking of control, you’re right on track. Teenagers are developing their own sense of autonomy and they want control. I would encourage the following when starting to develop the conversation with your daughter:

1. Promote Empathy. Empathy means you’ll put yourself in your 13-year-old daughter’s shoes and try to think what it must be like to be her. Try to feel the pressure she maybe experiencing about her current life, including the weight issues, and go from there. Sometimes parents get lost in trying to immediately fix the problem and can neglect to listen to what may be an underlying source of the problem. Your daughter could be experiencing other stressors that are connected to her choices with food that may not mean a full on eating disorder.

2. Promote Support. You already seem to have support for her with your desire to ‘not control her or accuse her’ however, making sure you let her know you support her and have noticed changes is a crucial factor. Often, parents make assumptions that “their kids just know” because it appears to make sense but there is power in saying the actual words. It reinforces that you are there for her no matter what.

3. Promote Communication. Communication is hard. It’s especially challenging with teenagers. However, the more you model healthy communication and overcome hard conversations, the more comfortable they will become with doing it, too. If you can come at this conversation from a place of love and understanding versus accusing and blaming, the more apt she will be to respond positively. If you’re looking for something more concrete in regards to a response, I really like opening a hard conversation with vulnerability. Vulnerability happens when we let others see what’s going on inside of us. Letting your daughter know exactly what you are feeling allows her to see that vulnerability is okay, which can reduce fear associated with the situation. Statements such as “I feel worried about how you may react to what I want to talk to you about, but I feel concerned about ______,” is an example of how to open with your own feelings. This is another way to open this dialogue and provide a safe environment to encourage your daughter.

4. Promote listening. Listen to what she has to say before you make a decision, and involve her in that decision. This is what adolescence is all about! There is an art to teaching and listening. This is a great time to give her some control by listening to what she has to say on her issues while still reinforcing that you are responsible for her safety and ability to make informed decisions. The more she feels part of the conversation and decision, the more likely she is to respond positively.

Today, I focused on how to start this conversation with your daughter, but I want you to remember that eating disorders are complex. Don’t forget about the messages you send yourself as a parent. Modeling healthy eating patterns and confronting misconceptions about food are great ways to provide an example that reinforce positive messages about weight and food.

Remember adolescents receive messages about food and weight daily. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you’re promoting positive, healthy messages at home while exploring your concerns with your daughter.

Finally, you don’t have to explore these concerns alone. Seek support through a mental health professional. There could be other contributing factors that are impacting her eating patterns. A mental health professional will be able to provide support in helping you determine the best course of treatment.

Thank you for reaching out!

Therapists at Ozark Guidance would be happy to answer your questions and read what’s on your mind. Click the butterfly icon below to fill out an anonymous submission form with your question or concern. The form contains NO identifying information and is designed to give local women an online place to share concerns with a person qualified to offer feedback.

Disclaimer: This RESPONSE does not provide medical advice It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on nwaMotherlode or Ozark Guidance websites.