The sallow cheeks scream from the newsstand—models on magazine covers looking rail thin. Celebrity tabloids proclaim how the celebrity of the day Lost Ten Pounds.
The message behind the photos can turn that coveted pint of Breyers Double Fudge Brownie ice cream into a guilt-ridden purchase. And, if you're feeling this way, imagine how your impressionable teenage grandchild may internalize these images about body-image.
Right now, 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. are fighting a serious battle with an eating disorder. And, The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that even though eating disorders are typically triggered in the teen years (around age 12, or when a child hits puberty) warning signs can emerge in a child as young as 8. Could your grandchild be at risk?
Harmless Diet Vs. Fatal Disorder
Eating disorders typically involve serious disturbances in eating behavior—consuming a significantly smaller amount of food than usual or severely overeating—coupled with anxious feelings about body shape and weight. The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa (not eating), bulimia nervosa (throwing up after eating), and binge-eating (rapidly wolfing-down, then fasting).
Eating more fruits and vegetables while cutting down on sweets is a good, healthy habit for teens to develop. But, if your grandchild has become extremely picky about what he or she eats, you may need to keep a closer eye on your grandchild.
“Looking at the backs of packages for nutritional information is a smart way to maintain a healthy diet,” says Kristy Morrell, registered dietitian at the University of Southern California’s Student Health Center and nutritionist at New Directions Eating Disorders Center, an intensive outpatient program. “But if it becomes obsessive—every time he or she wants to eat, your grandchild looks at the package, asks for a calculator, adds up the calorie intake and decides whether or not to consume the food based on the number—you should watch your grandchild's behavior more carefully.”
Exercise in the Extreme
Obsessive exercise can also signal a developing eating disorder. By excessive, we mean three and four times a day, especially after eating. Wearing baggy clothes can be a sign, as well, says Morrell. When a teen who knows she's lost a lot of weight is meeting someone she hasn't seen in a while (who may notice her shrinking size), the teen will want to hide her meek frame behind loose clothing.
Another point to keep in mind: Your grandson could just as easily be at risk as your granddaughter. Research from the National Institute of Mental Health finds that between 5 and 15 percent of people suffering from anorexia and bullimia, and an estimated 35 percent of those suffering from binge-eating disorder, are male.
Offer Your Loving Support
If you suspect that your grandchild’s behavior has changed and you’ve noticed that he or she has lost weight, try to gently strike up a loving conversation with him or her. “Don’t be accusatory,” says Morrell. “You never want to come out and say ‘You need to eat!’ or, ‘You look too skinny!’ Instead, ask how they are doing.”
Automatically assuming that your grandchild has an eating disorder will only set you up for a combative conversation that is sure to fail. Rather, you want to find out what’s going on in his or her life that may be causing the weight loss or stress. Perhaps she’s having a tough time at school. Maybe the boys at baseball practice are giving him a hard time.
The next step, of course, is to approach the parents and compare notes. Mention to your daughter or son-in-law the changes you’ve noticed. If you don’t see your grandchild often, you’re more likely to notice weight loss, odd changes in behavior or fluctuations in eating habits.
Lastly, if you and the parents suspect that an eating disorder has developed, consider seeing a therapist, nutritionist or health professional together. The best support you can offer your grandchild— and the parents—is genuine, loving concern. “You might even ask your grandchild ‘How would you like to have support?” says Morrell. “Or try a simple: ‘How can I help?’"
Get more information from the National Eating Disorder Association.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.