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Does My Child Have Bulimia?

Recognize the warning signs of this eating disorder and find treatment



Eating disorders are a physical and mental health issue that affects both boys and girls. If you think your child suffers from bulimia, then she needs professional treatment. 

What is bulimia?

Bulimia is an eating disorder in which the patient is caught in a repeated cycle of uncontrolled eating, followed by some form of purging. Purging techniques can include self-induced vomiting, overuse of laxatives or diuretics, or excessive exercise. Bulimia is a serious condition that can damage organs in the body and even be life threatening if left untreated. A childhood trauma or being bullied about weight can trigger this eating disorder, and it can coexist with drug or alcohol addictions.

Although many people associate bulimia with teenage girls, Christopher Willson, clinical director of the outpatient eating disorder program Dine in Philadelphia, sees an increase in boys with bulimia and has seen patients as young as 10. He urges parents not to dismiss potential symptoms as “just a phase” or “to take for granted that a child is too young to have an eating disorder or won’t have this problem because he is male.” He stresses being aware of and sensitive about eating issues. 

Warning signs of bulimia

Although not every child with bulimia will exhibit all the possible symptoms, warning signs include:
• Uncontrollable binge eating or overeating when stressed
• Frequent bathroom use after meals
• Guilt or shame about eating
• Depressive moods or mood swings
• Repeated weight fluctuations 
• Obsessive concern about weight
• Swollen glands
• Menstrual irregularities 
If your child has any of these symptoms, seek the help of an eating disorder specialist to diagnose or rule out bulimia. 

Treatment for bulimia

According to Jessica Feldman, director of the Renfrew Center of Radnor, a residential eating disorder treatment facility, “Recovery is a staged process that can take a long time and should not be attempted as a do-it-at-home endeavor.” Depending on the severity of the bulimia, an eating disorder specialist will choose from the following stages of care:
• Round-the-clock residential care
• Treatment for several hours per day, with the patient returning home 
• Intensive outpatient treatment a few days per week
• Outpatient therapy sessions

Many medical insurance carriers cover eating disorder treatment, and Medicaid may cover treatment for patients without insurance. If a center does not accept Medicaid, it may recommend a community-based mental health care provider who can manage a child’s bulimia treatment.

At all levels of care, treatment includes nutritional and mental health therapy for the patient and support for family members so they know what they should be doing at home. “The family works on being positive role models about eating and body image,” says Feldman. 

John from Philadelphia reports that his daughter Alex (names have been chang-ed) greatly benefited from her day treatment program “once she saw other people dealing with problems similar to her own and realized it was not just her with this problem.” 

Likewise, John notes that the family support therapy provided by the treatment center connected him with a community of other families who understand life with a child who has bulimia. The group’s support helps him navigate the ways in which bulimia has drastically changed his life and his daughter’s. 

Successful treatment involves cooperation among the patient, family and eating disorder professionals. Parental vigilance is key to recognizing the warning signs of bulimia and taking action. 

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