Is Your Child Using Food Just to Cope?

Here’s a familiar yet disturbing pattern that is often seen in the home – children are using food as a coping mechanism.

These children may become obese, or they may become anorexic. Either way, the food (or lack of it) is their crutch in a world full of trauma. But their crutch is causing them serious health problems.

Certainly our kids face their share of trauma. Bullying is trauma; so is shaming a child. With today’s social media, unflattering pictures or messages can spread incredibly quickly and they never go away.

This trauma gives kids a sense of worthlessness. They feel no one likes or loves them. And that’s how eating disorders develop, as a survival mechanism. The eating disorder serves as a distraction from the trauma.

Your own self-image affects your child’s eating disorder. Your children are sponges. They listen. They model your behavior. If you speak badly about your body, they will absorb those same beliefs. If you get cosmetic surgery frequently, you’re affecting your child’s own body image. If you eat fast food and snacks at night – or jump from diet to diet – you’re also affecting your child’s relationship with food.

School sports can even affect a child’s relationship with food. While sports give kids a sense of self-worth, it’s not healthy when it becomes overly competitive. Also, some sports have weight goals — boxing, wrestling, swimming and gymnastics – that may lead kids to become obsessed over numbers. Moderation and healthy eating should be encouraged instead.

When children first move away to college – away from their support system – they are no longer held accountable for their behavior. Very often, that’s when an eating disorder develops, when family and friends aren’t watching.

What signs should you look for?

For some kids, the problem is disordered eating, not a true eating disorder. The child who is a “food vacuum” and eats everything in the fridge – or who has quirky eating habits, like eating only cheeseburgers — has disordered eating. It’s just quirky and is not considered unhealthy.

An eating disorder, like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, is very different. A counselor can help in determining exactly what the pattern is – and whether it’s an unhealthy medical issue.

Triggers that should raise your antennae:

  • Significant weight loss or weight gain, with no explanation.
  • Unexpected dental problems, like enamel and teeth rotting.
  • Hair loss.

A counselor who specializes in eating disorders can determine the correct course of treatment. If there is a psychiatric illness, that must be addressed.

Talking to your child

When you discuss this with your adolescent, be honest about your concern. “This is what I see; this is what I’ve heard; this is how I feel.… I am scared, worried, don’t know what’s happening. I would like us to see a professional to make sure everything is OK.”

Focusing on your child’s quality of life and offering them self-respect can help them feel more in control so they can lead productive and healthy lives.