By Dishaa Desai
Eating disorders have somehow been relegated as being an issue that belongs to the West. However, Pike & Dunne (2015) have found this to be globally prevalent, including in India. Nearly 15-20 per cent of young people in India between the ages of 12- 25 were found to have experienced disordered eating (Jugale et al., 2014; Chellappa et al., 2013; Tendulkar et al., 2006).
According to developmental psychologist Erikson’s theory of development (1950), children aged between six and 12 years begin developing a sense of pride and accomplishment within themselves or a sense of inadequacy if they are unable to measure up to their peers. This then affects their self-perception in adolescence (age 12-18) in the stage of ‘identity versus role confusion’ wherein adolescents begin to formulate ideas and views about themselves and society. A large part of this identity exploration includes body image which is intimately connected to the way they feel about themselves and contributes to their overall self-image and worth. Moreover, being bombarded with media and societal expectations of an ‘ideal body’ while trying to adapt to one’s own bodily changes and exploring one’s identity is and can be very stressful, to say the least. This can lead to a negative relationship with food and possibly, serious eating concerns.
As a parent, it can be extremely confusing to understand when this becomes an actual cause for concern. It is not only when there are physical markers of concern (excessive weight gain/loss) that are red flags but the less obvious, behavioural signs that are usually attributed to kids growing up or the teenage phase.
Some of the signs to watch out for are:
Irregular weight changes and eating habits
Fluctuations in weight (sudden increase or decrease) reflect changes in eating patterns and vice versa. However, it is not only when eating is restricted that it is a red flag but also when there is a significant increase in food consumption (including emotional and/or stress eating), aversion to certain foods, spending long hours in the bathroom after meal times and so on.
Sudden spike in physical exercise
Children and teens who struggle with disordered eating may suddenly start exercising compulsively and intensely to control weight gain and/or as compensatory behaviour for binging.
Distorted body image and fixation on appearance
Young people who develop disordered eating patterns are extremely preoccupied with their physical appearance. While it is normal to be concerned about one’s appearance as a part of one’s overall identity and growing up, the identity of these young people rests solely on their appearance. This often manifests in wearing baggy clothes to hide their perceived flaws. This then directly influences their body image, resulting in a distorted bodily perception i.e. they may look into a mirror and see a completely different, flawed body, contrary to reality.
A change in demeanour
It is a popular misconception that eating disorders have a measurable effect on just the body. Very often, children with eating disorders become extremely irritable and restless. They also tend to withdraw from their usual social activities, family and friends. This major change in their personality is a vital red flag to watch out for.
In India, unfortunately, the stigma surrounding eating disorders leads to one being dismissive about the possibility of it happening to one’s own child. Understandably, it is a painful reality to confront, for parents. However, it is important not to let that become an obstacle to seeking the right kind of professional help and information at the right time. Early intervention is the best chance of preventing further decline.
Consulting a professional (a psychiatrist and/or child and adolescent psychologist) is what will help parents understand how best to help their child and equip themselves to deal with the complexities of eating disorders.
(The writer is Psychologist & Outreach Associate, MPower.)