Britain has the highest rate of eating disorders in the UK and in a survey 1 in 5 teenagers admitted to having eating problems.
But what does having a teenager with an eating disorder really mean for you as a lone parent? There is a lot of good information available on the internet about Eating Disorders: what they are, what treatment and support is available and who to contact if you suspect that your child has problems with food and body image - which extend beyond what is ‘normal’ for teenagers who are self-conscious about how they look and picky with their food. The links below will take you to sources of information and support.
The nature of Eating Disorders and the secrecy and denial of those who suffer from them mean that the hardest thing for a parent is the uncertainty and doubt about the concerns you may have. As a single parent the responsibility may be solely on you to decide how to deal with these worries and that can be tough.
You sense that things are not right, you’ve noticed odd behaviour: your son or daughter is getting very thin, or disappearing into the bathroom after meals or obsessed about losing weight. Do you say something? And if you do and you just get…”everything’s fine!” or “stop hassling me!” or “just leave me alone” (or words to that effect!)... What then? Perhaps leave it, and think maybe it’s not so bad, and anyway in your busy, pressured life you don’t really have the energy and it’s easier to believe that everything really is fine.
The problem with Eating Disorders is that left unchecked the obsessions grow, the faulty eating habits and self-destructive thought patterns become more ingrained, and the more risk your son or daughter has of developing serious health problems that are hard to recover from.
Remember, you know your child better than anyone and you know what is and isn’t ‘normal’ for them. Trust your instincts. Teenagers with Eating Disorders are experts at hiding what is going on for them, perhaps eating in secret, or making plausible excuses for skipping meals. The importance of acting on your suspicions and getting support, even when your teenager is denying there is a problem and reacts angrily, is highlighted in the following extract from the story of a 18 year old girl…..
"2 years ago it was my ‘best friend’ and now it’s my ‘enemy’! It no longer controls me or my family and together we’ve pushed it away. I couldn’t have done it alone. I wouldn’t have made it to uni if it wasn’t for my mum and the school nurse who convinced me to see a professional team….that took them 6 months! …….. I was really pig-headed! I am talking about ANOREXIA"
Often young people want the adults around them to deal with what is going on, but don’t feel able to ask for help. When a teenager is feeling that the only thing they can control in their lives is food and yet at the same time their behaviour reinforces their low self-esteem and self-hatred, and they are alone with these growing and scary obsessions, and then the people who they trust and hope will protect them seem unaware that anything untoward is going on, it becomes a self-fulfilling downward spiral where their lack of self-worth is confirmed.
Encouraging your teenager to talk about it and pushing them to get support, even when you’re not sure if your suspicions are right, may risk a negative reaction, but deep down the message is going in that you care and love them enough to hang in there despite the difficulties.
Trust your instincts and know that you are not alone.