A Parent’s Guide to College Students and Eating Disorders
Contributor: Stanley Selinger, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and Family Therapist, Timberline Knolls Treatment Center
Going to college is a goal and a milestone. It marks not just intellectual achievement, but social freedom and independence. It is a time not just for an advanced education, but a time to define who one is, achieve social acceptance (again) into a group and seek fulfillment in relationships.
There is tremendous stress and anxiety that comes with all those hopes, dreams, and expectations. It stirs up the coping strategies, competition, self-judgments and doubts and there is an insecurity that sometimes surfaces with the freedom.
Past Issues Can Arise Again in a New Environment
Issues that have been carried within the person since childhood often come to the surface and are re-worked in college. Without the usual structures, the students are vulnerable to their own histories of anxiety, depression, fears of rejection and loneliness.
It is a time when one can pursue one’s independence and sexuality with limited oversight from parents. They are often on their own to chart the path for their future. They want this independence, but don’t always recognize the dangers on this new path.
Succumbing to the Pressure
Many students succumb to the pressures of the culture, the models in advertising and then they assume that to be extra-thin is the pathway to finding acceptance and attraction. It is sad how desperate many become to achieve this objective, thinking this will bring them happiness.
The students may comfort themselves from this stress by the actions of:
- Restricting food
- Excessive drinking
Often they fool themselves into seeing their bodies as overweight, when they are actually extremely thin. The focus of their anxious insecurities is displaced by the obsession on their bodies and coping with a corruption of the role, value and symbol of food in their lives.”
The pressures in trying to be liked by everyone else, blinds them to their own vulnerabilities and their needs.
Eating Disorders Are Giving Them a Sense of “Control”
This is a time when college students are redefining themselves. This is serious business for them and often becomes more important than anything else. College students often talk about their eating disorder as giving them a sense of “control.”
They may not always realize it, but in recovery they can reflect back on their behaviors and say they thought, “this (eating disorder) is mine.” They have redefined the goal of college and lost a sense of how much time it takes to develop and understand themselves.
Don’t Be Afraid to Address the Problem
Families can help by not being afraid to address what they observe or to talk about these difficult subjects. All of this must be done and communicated in a caring and validating way, not a blaming and controlling manner.
Remember the student’s goal has been to be independent in its many variations and find peer acceptance. Actually, given this focus, the role of the family may need to change. The college students may not have the awareness of how or what to address in that matter.
This is a reminder that everyone in the family is affected and everyone can have a role in addressing and supporting the process of recovery.
A New Perspective on the College Experience
What is needed is a re-focusing and enlightened perspective of what the college students are living through. This includes discussions as well as an awareness of healthy and unhealthy boundaries, roles, messages, and soothing techniques to avoid the desperate spiraling into an eating disorder.
Counseling, psychotherapy (individual, family/couple) and/or special groups are among essential elements to help struggling students. The problems can be adjusted and directions changed, but it takes awareness, focus on underlying issues and emotions, support and learning healthier coping strategies.
It is an investment in the future and worth the effort for everyone.
Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!
As a parent how have you found it best to provide emotional support to your child who is away at college?
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 13th, 2015
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com