Life for older children is increasingly stressful. When stress and depression turn inward, many kids turn against their own bodies. While eating disorders and substance abuse and addiction are all forms of self injury, many distressed teens perform self-destructive behaviors that include cutting themselves, burning themselves, and extreme risk-taking.
Self-abuse may be hidden behavior (sliced arms under long sleeves, cigarette burns on the torso) or may be clearly visible—if you are looking for it. And some of it is a matter of a judgment call. Is that lower lip pierce a statement celebrating pain? Self-abuse has recently become so rampant among American teenagers, mostly female, that it's been dubbed “the anorexia of the '90s.” Self injurers cut or hurt themselves to relieve extreme anxiety. If your child is injuring herself, she needs help.
Tales from the Parent Zone
In high school, I knew a boy who burnt his arms with cigarettes when he was upset. A dear friend's mother pokes compulsively at the pores in her face until she bleeds. These people are not rare. Currently, it's estimated that around two million people in America self-abuse.
Eating disorders plague numerous bright, motivated girls. Many parents have some knowledge about the two most common eating disorders, anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (bingeing and purging). Though these eating disorders are extremely common among teenage girls and younger children (primarily girls), many are shocked when they discover that their daughter is suffering from an eating disorder. That's true for several reasons:
Tales from the Parent Zone
She walks through my neighborhood every day, a woman I knew as a teenager. Back then, she was just very thin. Now, after years of anorexia, she's a walking skeleton, her hair fine, her skin leathery from years of abuse and starvation. I have trouble understanding how she can still be alive. According to the American Anorexia/Bulimia Association, 90% of all teenagers with eating disorders are female. One percent of teenage girls in the United States suffer from anorexia, and up to 10% of those who suffer from it may die from it.
- Parents see their child every day and her loss of weight may be so gradual that they don't realize she's becoming anorexic.
- Many bulimics are of normal weight.
- Parents have natural defenses against accepting very painful realities.
Eating disorders are related to poor body image and stress. They are sometimes triggered by the loss of control children feel when their bodies start to show signs of development. Eating disorders are serious problems that, in the last number of years, have been recognized and heavily researched (even as the number of girls suffering from them has grown). There are many resources available for parents who think, suspect, or dread that their daughter has an eating disorder:
- Your daughter's school might have an educational program about eating disorders (many do) and probably has school staff or counselors with resources or information.
- Read. You'll feel less panicked the more informed you become. There are many books on the subject available in the public library, and many articles on the Internet.
- The American Anorexia/Bulimia Association offers support, literature, and information about anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders.
If you think your child is suffering from an eating disorder, don't ignore it, it probably won't just go away. Get help. You can't do this one alone. Start with your child's school and doctor's offices—they very often have on-site resources or recommendations.
Words to Parent By
Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation because of a distortion of body image. Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by cycles of bingeing (overeating) and self-induced purging (vomiting or overuse of laxatives).
It's important to understand that you cannot regulate your child's eating. Control and independence are two of the important reasons behind your child's eating disorder (the positive intent of it), which means that parental involvement will probably make it worse. (And worse often means hospitalization and permanent damage to her body—yes, this is serious stuff!) Back off, baby, and get her some professional help. With professional help, you may be able to help your child set her own goals and limits. Take care of yourself, too. Consider individual or family counseling. Being the parent of a child with an eating disorder can be very stressful.