For my latest #DomIn60Minutes parent and teacher webinar I was delighted to chat with Professor Lucy Serpell of University College, London. Lucy is a Professor of the Psychology of Eating Disorders, as well as a mum of 2 teenagers.
We covered a lot in our 60 minutes!
It’s hard to capture everything that was discussed in a short blog, but I will try to summarise some of the key learning points, and our answers to the most common questions about teens and eating issues.
Setting the Scene in 2022
We started by recognising the increase in the number of people of all ages struggling with eating disorders (most commonly binge eating) and body issues during the pandemic, as well as some of the challenges in getting NHS support. Most health services can now see people online to try to deal with the backlog, but some people have got worse because of the delays, which is a secondary impact of COVID.
What should I watch out for in my teen’s behaviour that could indicate an eating or body issue?
· Watch out for sudden changes that are persistent and sustained, not just a week long fad of a particular food. E.g. your child loved sweet things but suddenly stops eating them, or they refuse to eat as a family now, having previously happily eaten as a group before.
· Look out for food disappearing in large amounts / unusual patterns, or lots of hidden empty wrappers/ packets.
· Watch for a big change in weight, up OR down. Noticeable dramatic loss or increase is important to observe and ask about (see below).
· Gym behaviours – compulsive exercise, even when they are not well, or are exhausted, or on Christmas day. I.e. they cannot be flexible about it. Also if the exercise is mainly solitary and about ‘burning calories’ rather than about being fit/ strong/ being with friends. Being driven and rigid about exercise is unhealthy.
When should I be worried about my teen’s eating or food related behaviours?
· If associated issues like anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder or depression are also causing a significant problem in everyday life. (It is very common to have another condition when you struggle with eating.)
· If ‘normal’ everyday activities are significantly reduced or stopped because of the eating / body problems. Lifting weights in their room is ok if they still go out with friends, go to school, manage school demands, and game online or do sport with others. Lifting weights to the exclusion of other activities (including sleep) is not healthy. The same would go for other behaviours if they interfere with or stop the young person doing normal activities.
What should I say? What shouldn’t I say?
· Choose good moments to talk about things, e.g. when you are alongside each other, in the car, on a walk, in the kitchen. Don’t be afraid to raise the topic and say that you are a bit worried but would like to check if they are OK.
· The charities mentioned below have good examples about how to talk about this topic, but the main thing is not to ignore it! Just talk about it, gently!
· You could ask low key, compassionate questions, like ‘oh I’ve noticed you have stopped eating/ you’re spending a lot of time in the toilet… is there any reason for that?’
· If the gym/ weights are getting in the way of other activities, or you think they might be, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, and not be afraid to ask. Asking a question like ‘do you think you might be exercising too much?’ will allow them to reflect on it, even if they don’t agree with you at that moment.
· Being gentle and kind is key, and you can’t ask or intervene ‘too early’. Better to be checking - not ‘watching and waiting’ for it to get worse!
· Never comment on their weight/ body shape/ size.
· Be a role model, and don’t comment on your own shape/ weight/ food intake either. Avoid diet talk.
· Explore the reasons underlying their worries, behaviours and issues.
· Teachers can also help by being a good role model, avoiding/ challenging banter around food and weight, and keeping an eye on changing or worrying behaviours in the canteen/ playground. This Guidance may be helpful more widely for educational professionals.
Where can you get help?
· See your GP – don’t wait too long, and if they don’t seem keen to act on your concerns, see another GP. The national guidance is to refer early especially if not sure!
· Talk to the school/ college to get more context or background info if you need it.
· Use my blog about ‘how to be an advocate for your child’ when seeing health care professionals.
· If your child is reluctant to go and seek help, you may need to be firm, and clear, but kind. Explain what needs to happen, and why. Say you have booked a GP appointment and that they need to go, and you will go with them, or wait outside. If they offer reasons not to, then examine their concerns with them, talk about their worries, and explore reasons why they might not be keen to seek help. Avoid the ‘do as I say’ approach.
· As a loving parent you need to help them to find the help they need. Don’t give up.
What are some brilliant resources?
The new Eating Disorder Support app is free and easy to find on the big platforms. It is amazing and well worth downloading and reading, for parents or those struggling with their eating.
The UK has some great charities for support/ information/ helplines/ text support. Great for parents especially.
General recommended advice and a book for teenage girls.
Any book by Prof Janet Treasure!