Identifying Eating Disorder Red Flags in Your College Students

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Becky Henry, a coach for parents of kids with eating disorders, and Kathleen MacDonald of the Eating Disorders Coalition identify potential red flag warning signs that your college student might be developing an eating disorder. Becky and Kathleen bring over 30 years of combined personal and professional experience in the field of eating disorders, as: parent & coach and someone who suffered an eating disorder while in college, is now recovery & previous policy director.


Most college students, have been primed on how not to gain the “fresh man 15.” But likely haven’t been primed on just how dangerous trying to avoid gaining weight as a freshman can be. If you are reading this article you likely have some concerns about your college student’s health. We want to help you feel capable of helping your child, and give you motivation to take action if you notice any of the following “red flags”:

  • Isolating from friends and family, or events
  • Dieting and/or skipping meals
  • Cutting
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • More prominent or obsessive exercising
  • Becoming very secretive and irritable, especially about food or meals
  • When your child comes home for their 1st break (ie: fall, winter), you notice a change in weight that you haven’t noticed before (this could be a gain or loss)
  • Abrasion on knuckles (a result of self-induced vomiting)
  • Use of laxatives, diet pills/diuretics, self-induced vomiting, enemas
  • Trips to the bathroom during, or immediately following, meals
  • Increasing criticism of their body or the body’s of others
  • Increased talk about food, weight, calories, fat, etc.
  • Complaining of being cold (especially fingers and toes)
  • Increased consumption of diet soda or water
  • Increased perfectionism
  • Rules and rituals around food
  • Avoiding eating favorite foods
  • Discomfort in fitted clothes, wearing loose clothing

What happens if you see a few, or more, of these red flags? Your heart rate might have increased and your mind is racing with thoughts like, “Oh my gosh, does my child have an eating disorder?!”  We encourage you to take a deep breath. Many of the signs and symptoms we listed above can unfortunately be typical of a college student who is experimenting with behaviors that they witnessed on campus, and they might not indicate a full blown eating disorder. Still, these are very dangerous behaviors and signs, which need to be monitored closely, especially if your child is predisposed to developing an eating disorder.

How do you help?

You’re already doing the first right thing by reading recent articles from respected leaders in the eating disorders field. We encourage you to be careful of older, outdated, information on eating disorders, as there is a lot out there that is inaccurate and not based on current research. For example, in the past, the dieting that college students engage in to avoid the media-devised, “freshman 15” was seen as “a phase” and something all women did. Now we know that dieting can evolve quickly and be the precursor to developing an eating disorder.

Next, you want to talk with your loved one. Share your concerns and what you have noticed. Be direct and compassionate. Listen but do not let them brush off your concerns with classic phrases such as, “I’m fine!” or, “There’s nothing to worry about, just look at me!” Those phrases deserve further conversation, ask what they mean by that and tell them what you don’t think is “fine” about their behaviors, mood and symptoms.

Be mindful not to “kvetch” with your son or daughter about your weight-loss goals, body dissatisfaction and/or suggest dieting together. Too often these things are seen as a sign that, “See, if mom is doing it, then it must be OK. I must be fine.”

Then, you’ll want a plan in place for next steps if indeed you discover that your loved one is suffering from more than just a few unhealthy behaviors regarding their body, nourishment and the freshman 15. If you realize that the red flags you’ve noticed are signs of something more serious (trust your gut), then you need to get your student to an eating disorder professional ASAP. You can find great resources here and on our websites at www.eatingdisorderscoalition.org and www.eatingdisorderfamilysupport.com

During this process, remember that boundaries are a beautiful thing. Boundaries are not mean or uncaring, (though it may feel that way when you’re learning them). And sometimes boundaries include invoking “tough-love.” You may need to dig deep and find a strength you didn’t know you had, in order to set some tough love into place and help motivate your student to participate in seeking an evaluation and potentially stay home from school to attend treatment.

These are just a few tips for how to recognize an eating disorder and how to get help for your loved one if they are suffering.

The better informed you are, the better you can help your loved one.  

Remember that eating disorders are serious, but there is hope. People can and do recover and treatment works. There is a wide-range of treatment options available, including on college campuses, so please know you are not alone and there is help available.

Most of all we encourage you to remember that: If your loved one isn’t healthy enough to return to college, it’s OK –there is NO harm in taking time off for treatment.

Remember:

  • College will be there, waiting for you to pay tuition, when your loved one is healthy.
  • If your college student had cancer, a semester (or two, or five) off in order for them to receive chemotherapy wouldn’t likely cause you to think twice; in fact you’d likely view treatment as “urgent.”
  • A semester (or two, or five) off, in order for your loved one to get treatment for a dangerous and all-too-often deadly eating disorder, is just as urgent.
For more information about Clementine adolescent treatment programs, please call 855.900.2221, visit our websitesubscribe to our blog, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.