by Brooke Finnigan
Thin is in. And teenagers, the most ardent and susceptible followers of popular culture, are paying attention. The underlying message is clear: life in the thin-lane means automatic acceptance, success and approval. All too often, however, the pursuit of thinness becomes a lifelong struggle with weight. An extreme diet and exercise regime can end up altering the dieter for life. Research now indicates a full-blown eating disorder can develop within a matter of weeks. But, the most likely eating disorder to result isn’t anorexia or bulimia. It’s compulsive overeating. And up to 30% of the adult population in North America suffers from it.
What is Compulsive Overeating?
For most, an eating disorder begins in early adolescence, when the emphasis on appearance is unavoidable. One of the most obvious causes for eating disorders can be found in dieting. In an attempt to fit in, teenaged girls (and increasingly young men) diet to lose weight. For the vast majority diets lead to disordered eating patterns.
We now know that 98% of diets end in failure, and that’s true whether you’re 13 or 35. This is because diets provoke a sense of depravation and the biological response to deprivation is to overeat, or binge as soon as we get the chance.
After a binge, most fallen dieters will castigate themselves for a perceived lack of self-control. For example, a teenager with anorexic tendencies will restrict his/her food. A bulimic will feel guilty and purge that food. And a compulsive overeater, the category most of us fall into, will feel guilty. But, unlike the bulimic, the compulsive overeater won’t purge. Instead, the compulsive overeater both punishes and comforts themselves with food. It’s a vicious cycle of restrict, binge, guilt, and binge again.
As well, a traumatic experience, such as rape, can trigger an eating disorder. Food is used as a sedative, a coping mechanism for those who have been through physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
But it needn’t be a major event in order for a teenager to begin eating compulsively. Neglect and unfulfillment of a need can have just as strong an effect on an individual as an incident of abuse.
Ironically, parents who work so hard to provide all of the material things a teenager might ever want are likely to do more damage than they think; especially when basic needs like attachment, love, security and belonging are sacrificed for material comforts. What a teen wants, and what a teen needs, are very often two different matters.
It’s Not What Teens are Eating, It’s What’s Eating Them
Even though the actual eating disorder begins in adolescence, the seeds are normally sown much earlier than that. According to eating disorder specialist Michelle Morand, founder of The Cedric Centre in Victoria, B.C., it doesn’t matter how many kids are in the family, whether the parents are together or apart. What seems to be the biggest determining factor as far as the familial aspect goes is the amount of open, loving communication that existed. She explains, “Kids look outside of themselves for messages about whether or not they are doing things right and whether their behaviors and needs are normal and okay.” Many parents will unintentionally send their child the message that they are unacceptable as a whole; that there is something wrong with them. These parents simply don’t know how to successfully communicate their feelings about their child’s behavior. Morand contends, “These misunderstandings are a big factor in the development of low self-esteem, and low self-esteem will often lead to disordered eating.”
Poor self-esteem also creates and maintains negative core beliefs. “Core beliefs are beliefs about ourselves, that, for the most part, were established in our childhood,” Morand explains. Some can come on later, due to traumatic situations. Typically, they’re beliefs about our worth and our value as an individual. She continues, “We get these from other people in our lives, how they relate to us, how they respond to us, how they treat us, and what worth and value they place on us.” An integral part of treatment for teens with an eating disorder is to help them establish new core beliefs about themselves.
Signs of Compulsive Overeating
Compulsive overeating is characterized by the following behaviors: thinking about food much of the day, spending a lot of each day eating, avoidance of eating in public, eating when not hungry, never saying no to an offer of food, feeling controlled by food, strong cravings for specific foods, sneaking food, lying about food, tremendous anxiety while eating, eating when upset, eating to feel better, feeling guilty and depressed after eating, and feeling helpless to change eating patterns.
Whenever we engage in a behavior, it’s usually because at some point we benefited from it. Compulsive overeating is no different. Food is a drug, and compulsive overeaters use it to block out uncomfortable feelings such as loneliness and anxiety. Eating past the point of satiety suppresses anger and other overwhelming emotions, as well as creating a source of power, independence and identity.
Experts recommend looking honestly at your own history with food and weight. Do you criticize or make negative comments about other people’s bodies, about your own? Do you frequently diet? Are some foods labeled as “good” and others “bad”? Do you use food as a reward? Do you use food in power struggles in your household? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, than your attitudes toward food and weight might be putting your teenager at risk for an eating disorder, or contributing to an already existent disorder. As much as society plays a role, the family exerts the most influence in whether or not a young adult will develop an eating disorder.
One of the best ways you can support a teenager who eats compulsively is to take the emphasis off food and weight. It’s easy to assume that fast food and junk foods are the culprits, but the real issue at hand is how your teenager uses these substances to numb pain.
The most harmful thing you can do to a teenager who eats compulsively is to single them out as different or comment on their eating habits. They’re already painfully aware of the extra weight they carry, both emotionally and physically. Go deeper when you notice your teenager binging ¾ get to the root of the problem by talking.
The next step is determining whether or not you should seek professional help. The best way to know is to go straight to the source: ask your teenager. Even if they’re not ready to seek help now, just knowing that you’re aware and open to the option means that when they’re ready, they’ll know they can talk to you. One of the surprising facts experts don’t recommend is speaking with a physician. Unfortunately, medicine has not caught up with this particular eating disorder yet and most doctors still recommend diets and diet pills, which only exacerbate the problem. Compulsive overeating is not a medical condition 3/4 it’s psychological. Your best bet is finding an eating disorder specialist in your area who is familiar with treating teens.
Recovery Brings Peace
There are two major benefits to recovery. Morand puts it this way, “First, peace.” It’s impossible to have a peaceful mind when you’re constantly thinking of yourself as unacceptable due to your weight. “So you get peace of mind. And life. You have energy and the ability to focus on things other than food, and weight, and body issues. It’s like the whole word suddenly opens up.” And what more could a parent want for their teenager than peace of mind and the energy to live life to its fullest?
Appeared in Parenting Today’s Teens: http://www.parentingteens.com/hea