Your daughter seems to be losing too much weight lately. She has become more finicky about food and hardly eats in your presence. She claims she is not hungry or feels "too full" when you know she has not eaten all day. Just as she appears to be going overboard with her dieting, she is also exercising excessively.
Could your daughter be suffering from an eating disorder? What is an eating disorder and what are the symptoms? If your child does have an eating disorder, what caused it, what are the treatment options and how can we help her?
Eating disorders are self-destructive patterns of behavior related to food. In all cases, there is a preoccupation with food, meaning that the person is constantly thinking about dieting. With anorexia, for example, the intake of food may be controlled, severely limited and/or ritualized. Anorexics may be unwilling or unable to eat in another’s presence. They often complain of feeling full or bloated when they are, in fact, starving.
Bulimia is characterized by alternating bouts of binge eating followed by purging, or induced vomiting. In some cases, laxatives are abused to reduce body weight. In all cases of eating disorders, the young person’s body image is severely distorted. They see themselves as much heavier and unattractive than they are seen by others. And they strenuously resist efforts by others to correct those distortions.
Both anorexics and bulimics may exercise excessively in a desperate attempt to lose even more weight. They may work out for hours, engaging in strenuous aerobic exercises that they feel are necessary to eliminate imagined excess body weight.
While there have been cases of children as young as seven or eight years-old as well as middle-aged adults diagnoses with eating disorders, the overwhelming majority of cases appear in the teenage years. And 95% of all those who suffer from eating disorders are female.¹
For the most part, those with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists
and highly-self-critical. They suffer from low self-esteem and often lack
confidence. They crave attention and approval from others and may even appear
manipulative in their interpersonal relations. They are quite secretive about
their eating habits and almost always deny they have a problem with
While eating disorders are very much a psychological problem, they have extremely serious medical consequences. The self-starvation of anorexics and the bingeing and purging of bulimics often so severely interferes with body function that the usual cycle often ceases. In addition, the drastic weight loss associated with eating disorders can lead to renal failure, heart attacks and even death (heaven forbid).
Eating disorders are caused by a variety of factors. In any case, there may be one or more of the following contributing influences.
1. Media images. Even if your children do not watch TV or go to the movies, they are exposed to clothing ads on billboards and in the print media that glamorize thinness. The message conveyed by these images is that you cannot be socially accepted or successful unless you are as skinny as the models. For teenage girls who may already feel insecure about their social standing and appearance, weight loss may rise to the level of urgent priority
2. Abuse in any of its forms. When young children have been traumatized by physical abuse, they need professional help to prevent long-term psychological damage. If their parents were unaware of this trauma to the child or were unable, for any reason, to arrange for necessary treatment, the child has a high risk of developing an eating disorder in adolescence.
3. Dysfunctional family dynamics. If children grow up in
homes where there is considerable verbal abuse or high levels of conflict and
hostility, regardless of whether the children are the targets or only the
bystanders, they are at an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
Teenagers who live in such dysfunctional homes often feel helpless to correct
the problems that are clearly not under their control. By regulating their
eating with an eating disorder, they are unconsciously attempting to exercise
control in the one area of their lives, namely food, which is totally under
their control. They may also be unconsciously attempting to unite their
discordant parents by forcing them to focus their attention on the eating
Unfortunately, there is no single treatment option that has been proven to effectively cure eating disorders. Consequently, it is often necessary to implement more than one of the following strategies.
1. Hospitalization. Because of the life-threatening nature of eating disorders, hospitalization is necessary, at times. Aside from such emergencies, hospitalizations can also be helpful as part of an in-patient treatment program designed specifically for patients with eating disorders. These programs are geared for teens and include nutritional education and retraining, as well as group and individual therapies.
2. Medical consultation. Although there is no medical treatment for eating disorders, it is often recommended for the young person to be monitored by a physician specializing in adolescent medicine. The purpose of this consultation is to help determine if and when hospitalization may be needed, as well as to treat any medical complications resulting from the eating disorder.
Unfortunately, there is no single treatment option that has been proven to effectively cure eating disorders.
3. Individual psychotherapy. It is always helpful for the young person to have his/her own therapist who can help work through the underlying emotional conflicts, distorted body image and unhealthy family relationships. Those with eating disorders tend to be secretive and mistrustful. Consequently, it is vital for them to have their own therapist in whom they can confide without fear of unwanted disclosure.
4. Family therapy. By the time a teen has developed an eating disorder, his/her relationships with one or both parents have usually become strained. The best way to resolve these conflicts, build trust and reconcile the differences is with family therapy, in which the teen is seen together with both parents.
Aside from making the necessary arrangements for treatment, there are a number of things you can do to help your child cope with and eventually overcome his/her eating disorder.
• Do not discuss food. Although this condition is very much food related, it will not be cured by you encouraging your child to eat properly. Paradoxically, one of the best things you can do to help is to avoid initiating any conversation about food.
• While arranging treatment is important, it is equally, if not more important, to cooperate and participate fully with your child’s physician and therapist. If they give you guidelines and recommendations, follow them, even if you do not always agree. If they request your attendance at family therapy sessions or group meetings, make every effort to attend. Your participation in your child’s therapy demonstrates your concern for his/her welfare much more than anything else.
• Whether in a therapy session or at home, try to accept your child’s feelings without becoming defensive. You do not have to agree with all of your child’s complaints against you. To be sure, some of them may be exaggerated, or distorted. Nevertheless, your child may have developed an eating disorder as a result of feeling unheard or invalidated so it will be extremely therapeutic for you to listen as effectively as you can.
• Encourage and even pull for your child to express suppressed feelings of resentment or disappointment toward you or any other member of the family. This may be difficult for you to listen to but it will greatly speed up your child’s recovery.
It can be terrifying for you to see your beloved child imprisoned by the self-imposed and self-destructive regimen of an eating disorder. The serious consequences of this condition justify your high level of concern and worry. The good news, however, is that with proper treatment, considerable patience and ample time, eating disorders can be successfully overcome and your child can move on to a healthy marriage and family his/her own.
1. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Third Edition – Revised), Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1987) p.66 Adapted with permission by Dr. Meir Wikler’s from his new book “Partner With Hashem 2: More effective guidelines for successful parenting”, copyright 2006 by ArtScroll Mesorah Publications Ltd., 4401 Second Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11232
Dr. Wikler is a psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private
practice in Brooklyn, NY. He is also the author of eight books and has lectured
extensively on mental health and family health in the Orthodox community.