I have two teenage daughters. I was a teenage girl myself once. So anorexia is not a foreign concept to me. Especially because the summer before I went to Harvard, I lost 40 pounds myself. I spent my freshman year gaining the weight back, which was hard enough (think 1,600 classmates watching you change a pants size every month). But the really steep climb to mental health was admitting I had almost killed myself.
Although that was 30 years ago, I will never forget the grip anorexia had on me. So naturally I read with great interest a recent piece on Salon  by the mother of a nine-year-old anorexic girl.
Yes, nine years old and anorexic.
The essay is one of the best windows into parenting an anorexic girl I've ever come across. Anyone with a young girl under their roof should read it. Here’s a brief excerpt from the nine-year-old’s mother:
“Slowly, the pieces fell into place: odd comments over the summer that I had dismissed, thinking if I didn’t make a big deal out of them, they would pass like so many other random fears and concerns that my children had.
Questions, such as:
“Are my legs fat?”
“I feel full.”
“Do you think I’m fat?”
My response? It was so absurd I laughed and told her if anything she probably didn’t eat enough.
I also didn’t pay attention when she lost interest in foods she had once loved. I thought it was just a phase. In her short nine years, my complex daughter had brought up unusual fears and concerns. Usually if I didn’t make a big deal — took it in stride and gave her a little reassurance — it went away.
This time, it didn’t.
When the scale showed she was only 50 pounds — seven pounds less than she’d been during a visit only a few months before — her pediatrician referred us to a children’s hospital. There, they diagnosed her as malnourished and suffering from an eating disorder."
This is what I remember most vividly from being an 18-year-old shrinking to less than 90 pounds: anorexia is a seductive, beguiling affliction, more powerful than either of my parents. Anorexia is one of those terrible psychological sirens that entice you to destruction while whispering sweet reassurances in your ears.
As I fingered my prominent collarbones, hip bones, and even one day, the outline of my liver, I was adamant that anorexia was my best friend. It was my shield, the solution to the terror I had about growing up, becoming a woman, leaving my family, and embarking on the big bad world of Ivy League competition and independence.
At 18, I was old enough to know I would never be the smartest, the prettiest, the fastest runner, the most talented artist, or the most loved girl in the world. So I settled on being the thinnest.
Anorexia gave me round-the-clock, 24/7 solace to my deepest insecurities and fears, normal fears many teenagers experience. What parent can possibly compete with mainlining that kind of comfort? Especially parents like mine, who believed in me and knew I had to face my fears, head off to college, jump into adulthood and find my sea legs on my own.
So, combining my parent-of-three perspective with my experience as a recovered anorexic myself, here’s my advice:
1. Don’t ignore a child who makes negative comments about his or her body. Use the intimacy of the parent-child relationship to lavish them with compliments and reality checks. “You have such gorgeous legs,” or “You’re right, you are not as teeny as Sara, but you’re stronger and it’s great to be taller on the basketball court.” Or whatever. Compliment them daily. But careful: don’t trivialize their doubts, or shame them for having them. Heap self-esteem on them to counter the negative messages they are clearly hearing.
2. Don’t hope the problem is a phase that will go away. Anorexia can be a lifelong scourge, and it is one of the leading killers of women in America. It is too lethal to dismiss.
3. Don’t blame the media; don’t bothering ban magazines or the Kardashians from your home. Also don’t ever blame yourself. The blame-game is useless and will distract you from the real problem.
4. If you have a child who has lost more than a few pounds, make her gain the weight back first - before sending her to a therapist to figure out why (though critical, that comes much later). Just like getting an addict off drugs, you need to halt the starvation (and the endorphins losing weight releases in one’s brain) before you can reason with an anorexic. Use behavior management, restrictions and rewards to get your child back to a physically and mentally healthy weight. Then tackle the “why’s”.
5. Find out if there are support groups of girls who are committed to recovering in your area, by calling local hospitals, pediatricians or therapists who specialize in treating eating disorders. Active anorexics encourage each other to lose weight, and they are dangerous. But actively recovering anorexics may be the only people who truly understand the strange suffering and superiority anorexics experience, and they can offer priceless self-help support.
6. Once she’s gained the weight back, then encourage her to figure out how and why this happened to her, and to face the dangers that self-destructiveness brings. This is the upside of recovering from anorexia: a new kind of respect and love for yourself and your body, despite or even because of one’s imperfections.
Originally posted on ModernMom.com