Boys can suffer eating disorders too

Realising your son has an eating disorder can be traumatic and confronting for parents – how long has it been happening? What is it doing to his body? How can we get help?

For many years eating disorders were thought of as a “female disease” despite men and boys suffering them – many silently and unbeknown to family and friends. However, recent research has debunked the previously held “female disease” myth and revealed boys and men also suffer from eating disorders – with figures showing the number of males suffering disorders doubled from 1995 to 2005. (Hay et al, 2008).

Boys are just as likely to gain weight as to lose it when suffering from an eating disorder. From anorexia nervosa and bulimia to body dysmorphia – boys can struggle with trying to lose or gain weight in their search for the “perfect form”.

Perth mother Adrianne shared the story of coming to terms with her 11-year-old son’s battle with an eating disorder, his treatment and recovery on SBS’s Insight program last week – Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week in Australia.

Adrianne said she was shocked when her sister discovered her son had lost a dramatic amount of weight. He had been successfully hiding his weight loss from his mother by wearing baggy clothing for months.

“How could I have not noticed?” Adrianne questioned.

“I have sent myself crazy over the years, wondering why he developed an eating disorder. Was our parenting to blame? Did I contribute to his anxiety? Was I unintentionally passing on subliminal messages about weight loss?” she said.

She explained when she asked him years later why he thought he had the eating disorder he simply said he did not want to get fat.

Adrianne struggled with his answer and questioned if there was anything else in his family life or personality to blame.

Her son spent a lot of time exercising but Adrianne did not think it was abnormal, especially when her son passed the excessive training off as necessary for upcoming school events such as athletics.

“I was just grateful that he wasn’t spending his spare time on his Nintendo,” she told audience members.

She said her son was eventually diagnosed with an eating disorder when a psychologist saw he was controlling his anxiety with food intake.

“Mealtimes became a battleground and something we both dreaded, with screaming matches, arguments, crying and a battle of wills because I was convinced he was going to die before my eyes. I sat there for hours trying to make him feed just like I did when he was a baby and then slinking around like a spy to see what he did with the food. My placid son started to resent me.”

She said family-based therapy helped her son and he was now a happy and healthy 16-year-old with hopes for the future and great friends.

In hindsight she said; “…parents of boys need to be just as vigilant as they would for daughters about changes in food intake and exercising…unfortunately, it is not uncommon for boys to go untreated longer and receive less professional care than girls because there are few services designed to meet their specific needs.”

The Butterfly Foundation offers parents and carers information and support to deal with a child’s eating disorder.

  • Speak to your child if you think they may be suffering a disorder – as delaying the conversation may put the child at risk of serious, long term effects from the disorder
  • Seek professional help in the first instance through the Foundation or other agencies which can help parents find the right words and offer information and options to their child
  • Speak to the child in a “safe” environment for them – one-on-one, away from the dinner table/food – to make the conversation less confronting for them
  • Discuss concerns in an open and honest way – non-judgmentally and respectfully
  • Focus on your concerns for their health, wellbeing and behaviour rather than weight, appearance and food
  • Avoid blaming anyone for the problem and making assumptions as to why the disorder has developed
  • Offer help and support and let them know they are loved and cared for

For more information on eating disorders and body image visit www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au