When welcoming your foster child into her new home, your focus is to make sure she has everything she needs. Imagine that upon providing her with the essentials, including food, noticing rapid weight loss or finding large amounts of empty food wrappers hidden in weird places in her room. You are successfully providing for her, so why is this happening? It can naturally cause a shock. These are signs of a deeper rooted issue – an eating disorder. In examining bulimia vs. binge eating in foster children, it is found that they are connected but not identical.
Bulimia vs. Binge Eating in Foster Children: Causes and Connection
There is no one specific cause of eating disorders. For your foster child, it can stem from the separation from family and depression due to the sadness of leaving everything she has known. It can also stem from having low self-esteem because of mistreatment from her biological parents. These are very real and challenging factors for her. She has been removed from her home for good reason, but she is still faced with conforming to a new way of living.
No matter which eating disorder she is facing, the issue of control is apparent. The difference is that foster children who suffer from bulimia feel a sense of control, but those who suffer from binge eating feel a loss of control. The dual impact on the mind and the body makes overcoming more challenging for both disorders.
Control is important to your foster child. She is coming from an environment where she had no control over what was happening to her. What she can control, though, is how she reacts to her situations. An eating disorder, while unhealthy, makes her feel like her life belongs to her.
No matter what type of eating disorder she is facing, the connection is they are coping mechanisms used to help her deal with the pain she is currently unable to handle alone.
Bulimia vs. Binge Eating in Foster Children: Warning Signs
Your foster child shows signs of bulimia nervosa when she is overly concerned with weight and constantly talks about how “fat” or huge she is when she clearly isn’t. In fact, rapid weight loss will be evident. Other signs are cuts on her hands from self-induced vomiting (purging). She may also spend unusual amounts of time in the bathroom.
She will binge eat but with the intent of purging and use laxatives to get rid of the food she recently consumed. She drinks large amounts of water, not to stay hydrated, but to make it easier and less painful to purge.
If she battles binging, she is not as concerned with weight. This is why she is more likely to gain weight rapidly. Eating large quantities of food was probably one of her methods of comfort while suffering abuse and neglect.
She will binge on food in excess of over 2,000 calories at a time. To hide this fact, she hoards food and picks times (i.e., late at night) or locations (i.e., her bedroom or closet) to binge. It is possible your foster child will vomit, but it is only because the body’s natural reaction is to reject large amounts of food in one sitting.
There was a case of a ten-year-old in foster care who suffered from binge eating. He would eat regularly at the dinner table. When everyone went to sleep, he ate large quantities of food. When empty bags of chips and chicken bones were found in places like underneath the mattress and behind the radiator, it was concluded the child was both hoarding and binge eating.
Bulimia vs. Binge Eating in Foster Children: Consequences
If your foster child puts her body through unnatural experiences with eating disorders, this produces physical consequences. With bulimia, there is a high amount of stress the body goes through from binging and purging. Tooth decay from the acid of the stomach is formed. Arrhythmia can also develop and increase the risk of heart attacks. Unfortunately, if not addressed as soon as possible, this can result in death. Chronic stomach issues like gastric reflux can arise and don’t necessarily go away once bulimia is under control or conquered. If she binges, she is at a very high risk of obesity, high cholesterol and possible lifelong conditions that develop from being overweight (i.e., diabetes).
Psychologically, if she battles either disorder, the low self-esteem that has contributed to these conditions holds her captive. For bulimia, it’s coupled with the fear of becoming overweight. For binge eating, feelings of guilt and shame can overpower her along with, again, the loss of control.
Bulimia vs. Binge Eating in Foster Children: What To Do & What Not To Do
It’s important to know your plan of action as you help your foster child overcome either of these disorders. Since both the mind and body are affected, medical and psychological treatment is essential. As a foster parent and as a family, individual and group therapies as well as support groups are key to help on the road to a healthier lifestyle.
Your initial reaction after shock may be anger or fear – especially if she does something that causes her harm. With that, it is important not to blame her. The situation she is in is a reflection of the lack of care and love she received. Even though she is now in a stable environment, she still needs to heal. Mentioning her weight or appearance in any way is also not beneficial. When you see her eating, do not give undue focus to her food. Doing these things may produce anxiety and cause her to revert to unhealthy habits.
Let her know she is not alone and you are there to give her all of the support she needs. Encourage her to get help. And perhaps most importantly, have patience. It’s going to take time to recover, but with your help, she will be well on her way.
There are treatment centers for eating disorders throughout the country and a phone number to call 24/7.
For foster parents in New Jersey, embrella offers a course that addresses eating disorders in detail. Click here to access this very informative course.
Salendria Mabrey is a Communication and Development Associate at Foster and Adoptive Family Services.