Is Your College Student Struggling with an Eating Disorder? The Warning Signs You Need to Know

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Sydney Brodeur-Johnson, PhD, LCP

This blog post is sponsored and contributed by Veritas Collaborative.

The holidays are traditionally viewed as one of the most wonderful times of the year. However, as an eating disorder clinician with over 15 years of experience in the field, I’ve learned that the holiday season can be one of the most complicated and challenging times of the year for college students and their families.

This year, the holidays come at a time of continued uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as significant social unrest. College students are already uniquely at-risk for developing eating disorders, and our current climate can cause increased stress and isolation—feelings that can trigger eating disorder behaviors.

For parents and family members of college students, the holidays are often the first time they will observe these behaviors, and now more than ever, it’s important to be aware of the warning signs of an eating disorder.

The warning signs every parent with college-aged students needs to know.

Parents and family members are often the first to identify when their loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. Knowing the warning signs—and next steps—can make all the difference in your college student’s recovery journey.

Warning signs to look for include: 

  • Limiting or Refusing Foods College students may limit their food intake and refuse to eat in front of others, or at family meals. It’s not uncommon for them to make excuses such as, “I already ate,” or “I’m just not hungry.”
  • Eating Past Fullness Students may also eat unusually large amounts of food quickly, and past the point of fullness. They may feel out of control, avoid eating in front of people, experience feelings of guilt after overeating, and visit the bathroom after meals.
  • Body Preoccupation Individuals struggling with an eating disorder can become extremely focused on their physical appearance and experience body image distress. They may frequently make negative comments about their body, wear loose fitting clothes, or engage in body checking behaviors.
  • Changes in Mood Worrisome behaviors that could also be indicative of an eating disorder include emotional ups and downs, anxiety, and irritability. Self-harm is another concerning red flag — be cognizant if your loved one is constantly wearing long sleeves and/or bracelets, as this could be used in hiding self-induced injuries.
  • Excessive Exercise Students may exercise intensely and for long periods of time to “make up” for something they may have eaten recently.

It is also important to consider what constitutes developmentally appropriate behaviors, and when a combination of behaviors warrants additional attention. Your college student may come home on the heels of an academically and socially rigorous semester and want to sleep for a couple of days. They may also arrive home with a newfound desire for independence and be less inclined to spend time with family. Sleeping through the first weekend back home is normal. Asking for greater social independence is also typical college student behavior. A key question for parents, then, becomes: When should we worry?

Here’s my personal rule of thumb: If you are observing disordered behaviors and your child is adopting a defensive stance when you bring up those concerns, your child may be dealing with an eating disorder. Listen for any defensiveness from your college-aged child when discussing worrisome behaviors—and be ready to take next steps.

The holidays can be a good time to take steps towards recovery—here’s how. If I’ve learned anything over my years in clinical practice, it’s that parents and family members play a pivotal role in identifying eating disorder behaviors. These aren’t easy conversations to have, but expressing your concerns is a critical first step. Recovery is possible—and it starts with open lines of communication.

Starting with a conversation is often the first step toward getting your loved one the help they need. These initial conversations with your college student can serve as an important pathway to recovery, so it’s important to remain calm, caring and non-judgemental while sharing your concerns. Focusing the conversation on the behaviors you’re observing without making assumptions or judgments about your loved one can set the stage for a productive conversation.

It’s natural for your loved one to become defensive or anxious when confronted with your concerns, which is why you should strive to stay emotionally steady and supportive. It’s also a good idea to be mindful of who gets to be included in these early discussions. As a general rule, the parent or family member who has the strongest and most open relationship with the college student should be the one to address these concerns.

The holidays can be a stressful time for college students who are struggling with an eating disorder, but they can also provide a unique opportunity to seek out treatment and resources. Taking advantage of the holiday season can help your loved one take positive steps towards long-term recovery while classes are out of session.

Your college student doesn’t have to face their eating disorder alone—they have you. Knowing the warning signs—and taking the right next steps now—can put your college student on the path to lasting recovery and maintain academic momentum. The support you provide your loved one struggling with an eating disorder can make a meaningful difference in their recovery—and life.

Dr. Sydney Brodeur-Johnson’s passion is providing best-practice, research-informed and multiculturally competent treatment to patients with eating disorders and the families who support them. Dr. Brodeur received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a concentration in the interdisciplinary treatment of adolescents with eating disorders. Dr. Brodeur-Johnson is currently the Senior Director of Clinical Services at Veritas Collaborative, a national healthcare system for the treatment of eating disorders, dedicated to providing individuals with eating disorders and their families access to best-practice care and the tools they need for lasting recovery.