Parents constantly worry about their children and whether they are happy or not. Bullying, experimentation with alcohol or drugs, and performance at school are all things that parents fret about when it comes to their kids. However, a growing number of parents are dealing with the issue of eating disorders in their children, and according to Dr Caz Nahmen from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the summer holidays are a difficult time.
For those who are vulnerable to eating disorders, this time of year can be particularly challenging as they will be faced with the fear of having to expose more of themselves. Dr Nahmen said, “Children who are anxious, perfectionist, or high-achieving — the kind of children who are susceptible to anorexia — are going full-tilt through school exams and then the summer holidays are suddenly upon them, and they’re faced with a lot of unstructured time.”
Hannah Crossland’s anorexia issues began at the start of her school summer holidays in 2014 when she was aged just fourteen. She said, “We were going on holiday to Spain in July — the same day I broke up from school for the summer, and I thought I wouldn’t look good in a bikini. On the beach I felt really self-conscious, I thought my legs looked really big and I wanted to cover up all the time.”
Experts say that children with eating disorders often feel this way. According to Dr Adrienne Key from the Chelsea & Harley Street Eating Disorder Service, many parents are unaware their child has an eating disorder until they actually see them in their swimwear while on holiday. Upon seeing their thin frames in a swimsuit, they then begin to put two and two together.
Behaviour starts to change as eating disorders progress. Dr Key said that in the early days, children might feel good about themselves as they start to lose weight. They are keen to show off their body because they are happy that they have managed to lose weight. However, the longer they are ill, the more chance they will begin to feel ugly and ashamed of how they look. She added that they might prefer to sit in the shade and could become moody and irritable if parents try to get them to relax by the swimming pool.
Hannah said that after returning from her family holiday, she began losing weight because she started to become more conscious about what she was eating. She said, “I had smaller portions and cut out snacks. I became obsessed with the gym. I went every day for up to two hours and started secretly doing YouTube fitness videos in my bedroom.”
Hannah admits her initial goal was to lose a little bit of weight in order to look and feel good, but when she lost three pounds in the first week of going to the gym, she wanted to continue. She became obsessed with losing weight, and her father Tim began to notice the signs. He said, “When children are home all the time, you see things more. I noticed how obsessed Hannah had become about going to the gym. I went with her and saw how thin she was in her gym kit.”
As a result of her eating disorder, Hannah would not go out with family or friends if it involved food. She became reclusive. She said, “I’d become scared of calories. I thought anything I ate would make me put on loads of weight. I can see, now, that I looked like a ghost. My bones were showing too much.”
Hannah’s periods had stopped, and her extreme weight loss led her mother to take her to the doctor. Unfortunately, Hannah’s GP simply said she should eat regularly and do less exercise. Her parents felt as though their concerns were not being taken seriously. Tim said the doctors “seemed to have this attitude that all children were fussy eaters, and maybe it was a phase – but she’s never been fussy. It didn’t make sense.”
It was not until around Christmas in 2014 that Hannah’s mother insisted on another doctor’s appointment because Hannah had ‘given up food completely’. She had lost more than two stone in the five months since beginning to restrict her food. She was eventually diagnosed with anorexia.
Despite being referred to a therapy service for patients with eating disorders, Hannah’s condition deteriorated. She lost even more weight, dropping to just seven stone. She would not go out, and it began to have a devastating impact on the family. Her parents were worried sick, and her mother spent a lot of time crying.
Eventually, Hannah got the help she needed from a psychologist who managed to get her to start eating again. She is slowly putting on weight but admits she is still too anxious to go on another beach holiday and wear a bikini.
For those who are worried about their children and suspect that an eating disorder may be to blame, there are things to look out for. Parents should be vigilant for signs such as changes in personality, anxiety, refusal to go out and see friends or their child suddenly becoming indecisive. Dr Nahmen said, “More obvious warning signs include skipping meals, saying they’ve already eaten, or that they don’t like anything on the menu. If any of those things happen, I’d advise parents to take their child to their GP — early prevention is key.”
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