Helping Young People With Eating Disorders

Every youth leader knows teenagers who have developed a complex relationship with food. But knowing how best to tackle it can be challenging.

I became a Christian when I was 13. Shortly afterwards I developed anorexia. Surprising? Well, yes and no. Eating disorders (EDs) affect everyone: young and old, male and female. But they’re especially attractive to ‘good’ girls and boys. These young people won’t go off the rails in spectacular fashion – but they might break down quietly instead. They’re in our churches and our youth groups – maybe even yours.

More than ‘fat’

EDs are about much more than feeling ‘fat’ or aspiring to size-zero perfection. They’re about communicating dangerous feelings: writing with my body what I can’t say with my mouth. They’re about getting rid of frightening emotions: anxiety, sadness, anger, despair. They’re a way of comforting – and also punishing – myself. EDs are about trying to take back control when everything else is chaos: hormones, relationships, life. They’re an attempt to make myself invisible and they’re a desperate cry for help.

For the sufferer, an ED is a solution rather than a problem. It might look like I’m pursuing death but in fact I’m trying to live. Food is how I deal with pain. By restricting it, I feel in control. By overeating I’m self-soothing. By getting rid of it (‘purging’), I’m flushing away the scary feelings that threaten to tear me apart…

A spiritual issue

Even when I was at my weakest, my greatest need was for the gospel. I needed to know that Jesus came for the sick and that it was ok to make mistakes and be weak. I needed to know that Jesus was big enough to handle all my feelings, even the scary ones like anger and fear. I needed to know that other people struggled and were broken. I needed to face the consequences of my decisions and to say sorry – and most of all, I needed grace.

It’s easy to think that only experts can help but EDs are spiritual problems as well as medical ones. The Church has a vital role to play in ministering to the body and to the heart. This is not easy: EDs are threatening and hard to understand. But, while I knew about grace in my head, it was when others came alongside me that I believed it was true. So, as a youth worker, how can you spot the warning signs? And how can you help?

Read the rest (from this month’s Youthwork) here


5 thoughts on “Helping Young People With Eating Disorders

  1. “EDs are spiritual problems as well as medical ones” Right on! Some of the worst advice I ever got was from experts. My binge/purge cycle actually faded away on it’s own when I went to culinary school to become a pastry chef. The details of an ED seemed silly and wasteful, but the crazy emptiness lived on and on! At times anything seems to work for “stuffing”. Working hard, worry, rage, coveting, planning, setting goals, reading new Christian books (!) My greatest daily challenge is to really feel that horrid emptiness,(scary) and allow it to drive me to Jesus Christ and drink of his living water, which he promises will always satisfy.

  2. A friend forwarded this article to me. Says what I’ve been trying to put into words for so long (I care for my daughter who suffers an ED). Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Have bought the book …

  3. Caroline I think that’s absolutely right: our behaviours can change (and this is important), but it’s our hearts that drive them and it’s our hearts that need healing most.

  4. Thank you Ann, that means a lot: especially from someone who’s at the coal face. Praying for you and your daughter.

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