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Can You Spot an Eating Disorder in Your Child?

By KJDell’Antonia

“I didn’t just want to be thin,” said Madi O’Dell, whose battle with an eating disorder began in her freshman year of high school. “People think you choose to have an eating disorder because you want to lose weight. But that’s not how it was for me. I wanted to be in control.”

February is Eating Disorders Awareness Month. I talked to Madi, a former patient at the Children’s Hospital Colorado Eating Disorder Program, and to Dr. Jennifer Hagman, medical director there, because while I’m “aware” of eating disorders — what adult who grew up in the last couple of generations isn’t? — I’m not sure I know as much as I think I do.

I may think I know the basics of “prevention” (don’t emphasize weight and appearance, don’t obsess about your own weight in front of your children), but there’s one thing I’m certain that I don’t know: how to spot a developing eating disorder before it takes hold of a teenager’s life.

I asked Madi and Dr. Hagman to offer some specific advice for parents who might be aware of eating disorders, but still might not know how to recognize them in their early stages. Both agreed that it isn’t easy, but each said that the signs are often there. Their advice:

Watch for little changes. “I was weak. I was tired. I had shin splints, I got sprains, I couldn’t run as far,” said Madi, who is now a freshman in college and a soccer player with a healthy diet — and an outspoken advocate for awareness of eating disorders among teenagers and their parents.

Listen to what your teenagers are saying. Children who are beginning to obsess about food might talk a lot about eating healthily, or avoiding fat, Dr. Hagman said, or they might begin to say a lot of negative things about foods or their body.

Schedule meals as well as activities. “It was easy for me to hide that I wasn’t eating because I was so busy,” Madi said. “It was normal to eat in the car, it was normal to eat on the road.” Teenagers with an eating disorder may avoid meals by saying they have too much homework, or they’re too busy, or they already ate, or they will eat at school, when really, they’re not eating at all…

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