Parenting a Problem Adolescent: Eating Disorders
Now that we’ve covered suicide prevention, there are other problems often associated with youth that are a bit more intractable. Eating disorders tend to fall into this category especially amongst adolescent girls. According to Gillis (2000, cited in McMurray, 2003, 147): ‘Adolescents’ images of themselves are embedded in the way they see their own bodies, leading some to excessive preoccupation with body image.’
There are two main types of eating disorder (if we ignore the current epidemic of obesity) that often affect adolescent girls called anorexia nervosa and bulimia. According to Estok & Rudy, 1996:
‘Anorexics avoid food to the point of emaciation, while bulimics tend to binge on large volumes of food and then purge their bodies by laxatives, self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or a combination of these methods. The malnutrition caused by both of these conditions outs young people at risk for dehydration, infections, cardiac problems, menstrual problems and, for those with bulimia, the additional problems of esophageal irritation and dental erosion.’
According to Wakeling (1996), ‘An increase in the prevalence of eating disorders is becoming evident in all but the developing countries.’ On that point it tells us fairly strongly that eating disorders are a product of our western consumer culture.
Second generation immigrants from developing countries including non-Caucasian populations are not immune either, further raising that a significant social health problem exists in countries like Australia. Interesting research in the United Kingdom has identified that British women are overweight and that 60% are dieting. On the one hand this may be a good thing, but some authors argued the dieting is often extreme, undertaken by primarily middle-class women and are part of a ‘healthist’ culture designed to differentiate the women from each other and promote mutual affirmation.
The suspicion was that these women acted as role models for their daughters with eating disorders. The media has also been blamed (Tiggermann, 1995) but a major culprit in relation to ‘pushing’ maladaptive eating behaviours is the beauty and fashion industry. According to Zerbe (1996) ‘The dangerous message in most of the fashion magazines is one of overvaluing appearance as a measure of personal worth.’
Eating disorders undoubtedly represent a major challenge for parents and health authorities. Resilience is undoubtedly important in some part for preventing the sort of dangerous eating (or not eating) pattern behaviour associated with anorexia and bulimia. Therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, use of antidepressant or antipsychotic drug therapies have had fairly limited success. On the other extreme we now also have an epidemic of obesity in children, teens and adults in countries like Australia.
According to French et al (2001) frequent consumption of fast foods from the popular fast food outlets is associated with excess weight gain. It seems that young people are increasingly underestimating their portion sizes and intake which are also cheap and at the same time are living more sedentary lifestyles in this age of computers and communication technologies.
Parents, schools, youth clubs armed with at least the knowledge that eating disorders are a probably highly linked to the construction of a consumer image of young women, and the fact that early intervention via counselling and CBT can to some extent have an impact in changing young adolescent girls perspectives about themselves and their self worth have a chance to prevent the onset of these disorders. Dealing with anxiety, depression, obsessions and compulsions is part of this process.