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An eating disorder isn’t easy or comfortable to talk about but the experts at the Atlantic Health System Pediatric Eating Disorders Center say it’s essential to know how to start a conversation with your child about this important topic.

Stephanie Levine, DO, FAAP, Adolescent Medicine Physician, Atlantic Health System and Meghan Feehan, PsyD, Program Manager for the Pediatric Eating Disorders Center at Atlantic Health System, appeared on a Facebook Live to answer questions about eating disorders and to let families know about resources available to them.

An eating disorder is an illness that can be cured with help and expert intervention. You may have heard of anorexia and bulimia but there are other diagnoses such as ARFID that may be less familiar. And while a higher percentage of females are affected by eating disorders, it’s not just girls and women who suffer from them. These days, more and more males are seeking help for eating disorders. All socioeconomic groups and ethnicities can be affected.

Atlantic Health System provides various levels of care for eating disorders for ages 8-21, depending on the needs of patients. At the highest level, there is partial hospitalization which is essentially day treatment where a patient is seen up to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. AHS also provides outpatient services.

“We are a team and there’s a medical evaluation as well as a psych evaluation so collectively we make a decision on what level of care patients need,” says Levine.

It’s essential for parents to know what to look for in their kids. During adolescence, children are going through changes and oftentimes parents may not notice something is wrong, Levine says. “If you have some suspicion talk to your pediatrician,” she says. ” We are available if the pediatrician needs to call us. We have a doc to doc line. It’s a great resource.”

Feehan says the pandemic has driven an increase in the need for help with eating disorders.

“We have been inundated with requests for evaluations,” she says. “These illnesses, there is a genetic predisposition. The kids we treat are high-achieving, perfectionist kids. They like predictability and certainty and right now, we have none of that. That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen this marked increase.”

AHS is in the midst of expanding its eating disorders programs so more families can get the help they need. Here are some of the questions parents posed during the livestream:

What is ARFID?

“ARFID stands for avoidant restrictive food intake disorder,” says Feehan. “It’s a newer diagnosis. It’s not about body image or fear of weight gain, but usually due to some bad result a person has had from eating.” It could be that the person choked on food or something they ate made them nauseous or that they have specific sensory characteristics that make them limited to a very narrow repertoire of what they will eat. “These individuals restrict their eating but not to make changes to their weight,” she says. “Kids with food allergies may experience this because that fear response is instilled.”

What are the signs my child’s anorexia has returned?

Levine says that just your suspicion that it has returned is enough of a reason to seek help. “It could be seeing the same behaviors come back, such not eating with the rest of the family, not going out with friends or disengaging,” she says.

“It’s about approaching your child and speaking to them directly,” says Feehan. “Say, ‘I have been observing [whatever behavior] and I’m worried.'”

Can treatment make a difference?

Unlike most psychological illnesses, eating disorders are curable, says Feehan. And that is pretty amazing! The modality we use is FBT – family-based treatment,” she says. “It’s the only evidence-based treatment for eating disorders. Despite that few centers nationwide use that. We’re the only one in NJ that uses FBT as a primary modality. We see patients recover and when you see it, it’s so gratifying. We have data that supports our outcomes and a high success rate.”

What if my child refuses to come along for treatment?

“As a parent, it is your job to make sure they are safe and healthy,” says Feehan. “You have leverage. “Use that, and ultimately say ‘I need to make the best parental decision for you.'”

Levine stresses the importance of being forthcoming with your child.

“There should be no secrets or hiding or telling them on the car ride over,” she says. “Preparation is key.”

If you or someone in your family needs help with an eating disorder, visit Atlantic Health System for more information and watch the Facebook chat here.