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What Does a Lawyer Know About Teenage Eating Disorders Anyway?

What Does a Lawyer Know About Teenage Eating Disorders Anyway?

Not much!

But I do know this, we as a society are, generally, preoccupied with body image. Our movies are, for the most part, filled with some of the most “beautiful” and “attractive” among us. Our magazines are filled with images of bodies, many of them airbrushed or otherwise electronically modified, that convey an often unobtainable ideal. For many, these ideals set the standard by which beauty and attractiveness are measured. For some, this standard becomes a “win at all costs” goal.

These so-called standards strike the developing self-image of teens with tremendous force and efficacy. Their attack is especially influential with young women—though it would be a grave error to assume that young men are not also affected. Though personal factors (genetics or biological factors) and chosen activities that value leanness (modeling and athletics) play a roll, this visual onslaught is one of the principle causes of teen eating disorders.

Eating disorders can take a devastating toll on teens, especially girls. I don’t pretend to be an expert on eating disorders. I’d have to do some research to distinguish anorexia from bulimia. But, as a lawyer, we’re trained to gather information, to know where to look to find what we’re looking for. So I did what I’m trained to do. I researched. I came across a great article published by the Mayo Clinic. It offers pretty straight forward advice on recognizing and dealing with teen eating disorders. With some shameful quoting (the “Mayo Clinic Staff” is undeniably more qualified than myself to offer information on this topic) their thoughts are shared below in italics:

Early consequences of teen eating disorders

Signs and symptoms vary, depending on the type of eating disorder. Be alert for eating patterns and beliefs that might signal unhealthy behavior, as well as peer pressure that may trigger eating disorders. Some red flags that might indicate an eating disorder include:

  • Skipping meals, making excuses for not eating or eating in secret
  • Excessive focus on food and healthy eating
  • Persistent worry or complaining about being fat and talk of losing weight
  • Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
  • Repeatedly eating large amounts of sweets or high-fat foods
  • Use of dietary supplements, laxatives or herbal products for weight loss
  • Excessive exercise
  • Regularly going to the bathroom after eating
  • Eating much more food in a meal or snack than is considered normal
  • Expressing depression, disgust, shame or guilt about eating habits

Prevention begins with open communication

To help prevent teen eating disorders, talk to your son or daughter about eating habits and body image. It might not be easy, but it’s important. To get started:

  • Encourage healthy-eating habits.Talk to your teen about how diet can affect his or her health, appearance and energy level. Encourage your teen to eat when he or she is hungry. Make a habit of eating together as a family.
  • Discuss media messages.Television programs, movies, websites and other media might send your teen the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Encourage your teen to talk about and question what he or she has seen or heard — especially from websites or other sources that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice, rather than an eating disorder.
  • Promote a healthy body image.Talk to your teen about his or her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Don’t allow hurtful nicknames or jokes based on a person’s physical characteristics. Avoid making comments about another person based on his or her weight or body shape.
  • Foster self-esteem.Respect your teen’s accomplishments, and support his or her goals. Listen when your teen speaks. Look for positive qualities in your teen, such as curiosity, generosity and a sense of humor. Remind your teen that your love and acceptance is unconditional — not based on his or her weight or appearance.
  • Share the dangers of dieting and emotional eating.Explain that dieting can compromise your teen’s nutrition, growth and health, as well as lead to the development of binge eating over time. Remind your teen that eating or controlling his or her diet isn’t a healthy way to cope with emotions. Instead, encourage your teen to talk to loved ones, friends or a counselor about problems he or she might be facing.
  • Use food for nourishment — not as a reward or consequence.Resist the temptation to offer food as a bribe. Similarly, don’t take away food as a punishment.

Also remember the importance of setting a good example yourself. If you’re constantly dieting, using food to cope with your emotions or talking about losing weight, you might have a hard time encouraging your teen to eat a healthy diet or feel satisfied with his or her appearance. Instead, make conscious choices about your lifestyle and take pride in your body.

Teaming up with your teen’s doctor

  • Your teen’s doctor can reinforce the messages you’re giving your teen at home, as well as help identify early signs of an eating disorder.
  • For example, the doctor can look for unusual changes in your teen’s body mass index or weight percentiles during routine medical appointments. The doctor can talk to your teen about his or her eating habits, exercise routine and body image. If necessary, he or she can refer your teen to a mental health provider.

Seeking help for teen eating disorders

  • If you suspect that your teen has an eating disorder, talk to him or her. Encourage your teen to open up about his or her problems and concerns. Also schedule a medical checkup for your teen. The doctor can assess your teen’s risk of an eating disorder, as well as order urine tests, blood tests or other tests to detect complications.
  • If your teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder, treatment will likely involve a specific type of family therapy that helps you work with your child to improve his or her eating habits, reach a healthy weight, and manage other symptoms. Sometimes medication is prescribed to treat accompanying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In severe cases, hospitalization might be needed.
  • Whatever the treatment plan, remember that early intervention can help speed recovery.

As a parent of four beautiful children, I know that I can’t know everything about everything—that’s their job, just ask them. But I can seek to know a little bit about a lot of those things that put them at risk for injury or harm. In the legal field we call this being able to “spot the issue.” To know just enough about areas of the law outside our principle area of practice to recognize a potential problem with our case or a weakness in our opponents’, and to know where to go to find more information or authority to support our clients’ position. So it is with parenting. We can’t know everything, but we can know enough to spot the issue. As we learn and seek to understand those areas which present a danger to our children, we’re better able to spot the potential danger before it causes irreversible harm to those we love most.

Scott Edwards is a resident of Ridgefield and a partner at the Vancouver law firm of Schauermann Thayer Jacobs Staples & Edwards PS. His practice focuses exclusively on representing persons injured by the carelessness of others. In addition to his work with Vancouver Family Magazine, he has authored a safety blog entitled "Make Safe" where he has written about topics aimed at making our communities safer.

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