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Parents: how to recognise anorexia

Unlike bulimia is hidden from view, anorexia is visible, on show even. By recognising the symptoms and taking them in hand as quickly as possible, an often vicious spiral can be avoided.

Parents: how to recognise anorexia
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For years now, anorexia has had large coverage in the media and we all hold images in our heads of those young teenagers whose point blank refusal to feed themselves has carved out an unhealthy skeletal body.  Clinically, the symptoms of anorexia are easy to identify. First of all, there is loss of weight that can be as much as 15 or 20% of the initial weight. For example, a young girl weighing 55 kilos can lose 8 or more kilos. Obviously this doesn’t happen overnight, but a body that hasn’t had sufficient nourishment can get noticeably thinner in just a few weeks.

The more weight she loses, the better she feels

As parents, how do you recognise anorexia?

  • Your teenager isn’t eating as much,
  • She avoids sitting down to a family dinner
  • She skips meals
  • She refuses to eat certain types of food which are too heavy or rich

To a certain extent, there is nothing pathological about this behaviour, seeing as more than 40% of teenagers struggle to maintain or get back to “their” ideal weight. Besides, slimming is smiled upon in our society and is even congratulated and encouraged. Losing the first few kilos is therefore generally greeted favourably and so control over her appetite and body contributes to the teenager’s feeling of power and wellbeing.  The more weight she loses, the better she feels.

Perfect little girl...

The other main symptom of anorexia, resulting from the first one, is when she stops getting her periods (amenorrhea). Although some anorexics don’t talk about this, others do without necessarily seeing the connection with limiting what they eat. When weight loss is combined with amenorrhea, the diagnosis of anorexia is not far away. There are other quite symptomatic types of behaviour that are also associated with anorexia.

A typical example of the perfect little girl, the teenager throws herself deep into her studies and more generally into intellectual circles. Often sad and irritable, she withdraws from her emotional life and prefers being on her own rather than for example, experiencing her first romantic adventures. Then she finds other ways of controlling her weight, using laxatives or diuretics, taking up intensive physical exercise or even making herself sick. In fact, around 50% of anorexics also experience episodes of bulimia.

Don’t play down the problem

However, despite the symptoms being clear to see, anorexia is rarely picked up when it first starts and often two or three years pass by before the first consultation. The teenager herself isn’t going to sound the alarm bell as she is in denial of her illness as she doesn’t see herself as being sick. She’s not bothered by the weight loss signalling her disorder... quite the opposite in fact.

As for her family, more often than not, they don’t see how serious the symptoms are and try to play down the problem hoping that it is just a passing phase. But anorexia doesn’t go away of its own accord – it requires counselling for both the teenager and her parents. In fact, food doesn’t just answer a psychological need. It also has an enormous effect on emotions, which explains why it provokes a real mental battle. This is why anorexia not only often reveals family disruption and dysfunction but also alters the “normal” running of family life, where everyone’s attention is focused on the person refusing to eat.

A real addiction

Whatever their reactions may be, parents often helplessly witness the development of anorexia. But the more the illness takes a grip, the more the problems intensify and the road to recovery becomes more difficult. Anorexia is similar to other kinds of drug addiction, gradually pushing out all other centres of interest, as the person’s entire life revolves around the addiction.

“Anorexia is my life, my best friend, it even rules over me. The fact that it’s slowly killing me counts for very little compared to what I get out of it in the short term,” affirms Nathalie, an anorexic for 30 years, who was photographed and interviewed by Felicia Webb for Le Monde 2. To show the extent of the seriousness of the disorder, in extreme cases 10% of anorexics die from the effects of their illness. This is an alarming figure that must not however, overshadow the results of treatment as after having been monitored for on average 4 years, 75% of anorexic patients no longer present any major symptoms of their illness.

The earlier the illness is taken in hand, the more positive the results are. That’s why when you are faced with a teenager who is losing weight and who has stopped having her periods, you should consult a doctor who specialises in eating disorders straight away.

Posted 13.06.2012

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