How to Talk to Your Son About His Eating Disorder
Jenny Langley was prepared to address a number of difficult issues while raising her son – but anorexia wasn’t one of them.
“It was a huge shock when my 12-year-old old son started to disappear before my eyes,” Langley wrote on her blog, Boys Get Anorexia Too. “Up until my son was afflicted I hadn’t ever heard of any examples [of boys with anorexia]. It turned out neither had my [doctor], any of the teachers at my son’s school, nor any of my friends or work colleagues.”
Langley’s son recovered from his disease, and in the years since he was diagnosed, several efforts have been made to raise awareness about the prevalence of boys who suffer from eating disorders. But stigma, embarrassment, and ignorance still exist – all of which make dealing with this devastating disease that much more difficult.
RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS
The first step in treating any disease is acknowledging that the condition actually exists. But one of the most insidious aspects of most eating disorders is the way they compel sufferers to hide their symptoms. Thus, parents need to remain vigilant in order to identify any “red flags” that may indicate that their son has a problem.
Among the most common symptoms of eating disorders in boys are drastic weight loss, constant skipping of meals, and an unhealthy focus on weight. Other signs include restricting oneself to a rigid diet consisting of very few foods, exercising obsessively, and making judgmental comments about other people’s shapes and sizes.
Boys with eating disorders will often wear baggy clothes to hide the effects of their disease. They may also make frequent complaints about being cold or tired. The hair on their head is likely to become dry and brittle, though soft downy hairs will often begin to grow on their legs, arms, and torso.
For parents who recognize any of these signs in their son, the next step – talking with the child about his eating disorder – can be both crucial and confounding.
Regardless of who is afflicted by an eating disorder, talking about the condition can be quite difficult. But having this conversation with a teenage boy can be especially challenging. As an article on the Eating Disorders Help Guide website indicates, men and boys may be reluctant to discuss this topic out of fear that they will be negatively judged for having developed a “feminine” condition.
According to eating disorder expert Brad Kennington, effectively addressing gender concerns is an important step in treating men and boys with eating disorders.
“Eating disorders do not discriminate when it comes to the medical and psychological harm they can inflict on a person. Males who struggle with an eating disorder need to receive treatment from a professional who is knowledgeable about these disorders and aware of the stigma and shame these men and boys experience,” Kennington wrote. “Eating disorders are less about food and weight and more about self-esteem, a lack of control over one’s life, a search for identity, and a way to cope with strong negative feelings.”
Kennington is the executive director of Austin Sendero, the first residential treatment facility in Texas – and one of the few in the nation – with programs specifically designed to meet the unique needs of males with eating disorders.
ADDRESSING THE ISSUE
In addition to being ready to allay your son’s concerns about having a “girls’ disease,” consider the following points before talking to him about his eating disorder:
- Educate yourself – Eating disorders are complex conditions that even the experts don’t completely understand – but that doesn’t mean you should enter into this conversation as a “blank slate.” Sites such as Something Fishy, Eating-Disorder.com, and the Eating Disorders Help Guide are excellent resources to bring you up to speed on the latest information about eating disorders.
- Express your concerns – Above all else, be sure to let your son know that you are having this conversation with him because you love, support, and care for him, and you want him to be as healthy and happy as possible. He may not believe this the first time you say it (or, for that matter, the second, third, or fourth times, either), but establishing that you are on his side is an important part of getting him to accept the help he needs.
- Don’t argue – This is most definitely not the time for threats or accusations. Though your son’s actions may be mystifying (even maddening) to you, remember that they are the result of a disease. You wouldn’t yell at your child for coming down with pneumonia or being diagnosed with diabetes, so don’t try to blame him (or yourself) for his condition.
- Be ready for an argument – Just because you know better than to argue, don’t assume your son will have the same mindset. Eating disorders affect both the body and the mind (survivor Lucy Howard-Taylor once described her experience by saying “I had some very poisonous conversations with my anorexic demon”) and your son’s disease may have programmed his mind to deny that he has a problem. Expect hostility, but be prepared to counteract it with compassion.
- Focus on behavior, not appearance – As strange as it may sound to you, your son may take comments like “you’re wasting away,” “you’re too skinny,” or “you look like a skeleton” as compliments – after all, the “goal” of his eating disorder is to become smaller and smaller. Thus, pay more attention to his behavior – for example, discuss the many meals he has been skipping, or the time you caught him trying to force himself to vomit.
- Offer observations, not judgments – Acknowledge what you see happening to your son, but be sure not to assign guilt or blame. “I hate what’s happening to you” is an honest expression of concern. “I hate what you’re doing to yourself” just compounds the pain your son is already feeling.
- Listen – This may be the most important advice of all. You and your son are in this together, and it is essential that he knows his thoughts and words have value. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but you have to be willing to hear him out.
- Get help – Depending upon the severity of your son’s condition, his recovery process may involve intermittent therapy or round-the-clock residential treatment. The websites noted in this article can help you find help for your son, as can your family physician or your son’s guidance counselor.
Talking to your son about his eating disorder may be the most difficult conversation you ever have. It may also be the most valuable. Eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses, and delays in treatment only add to the devastation.
On the positive side, eating disorders are treatable and beatable – and your willingness to help your son overcome his illness may be the greatest gift you can give him.