eating disorder

On Dealing with My 12-Year-Old Son’s Eating Disorder

Empty white dinner plate on rustic wooden kitchen table, top view

Two out of my three kids are picky eaters. The middle kiddo, who is 9, will take at least a bite of most things that we ask him to try. He prides himself on being our adventurous eater. My 3-year-old is a typical picky toddler. She eats PB&J, chicken nuggets, bananas, goldfish crackers–the usual. I’m not worried about her. She’ll come around. But my oldest, my 12-year-old…that’s another story.

He’s always been a picky eater. He always preferred to have the same lunch made for him to take to school every day. I always assumed the eating issues were related to his being on the spectrum. For several months we worked with an occupational therapist to try and expand his palate. She used a gentle food desensitization approach. He was receptive to the hour-long sessions, but after months of him just sitting through the therapy and not showing any intention of adding any foods to his diet, we decided to put that intervention on hold and focus on the pressing issue, his anxiety.

After he was diagnosed with GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) earlier this year, we started him on a medication that has made a world of difference to him and our family as a whole. The stress level of our daily routine went from me thinking we needed a behavior therapist to no intervention needed. Family outings that were once extremely difficult are as easy as they’ve ever been. My husband and I marvel at the difference every single day. Our son is more relaxed and happier, acting out much less because of it.

But there’s one problem: his already poor appetite was decreased on the medication, and he started losing weight. Our psychiatrist weighs him at every visit and told us that he had lost two pounds on his last visit. That is a lot of weight to lose when you consider that he’s 12 and weighed 65 pounds to begin with. She said that if he lost any more weight the following month, she would have to take him off of the medication.

At that appointment, the doctor and I decided to focus on explaining to Joey how important it was that he start adding fattier foods to his diet and eating even when he might not be hungry. He was extremely resistant. He cried a lot and asked to take at least two bathroom breaks during the session. During one of those breaks, the psychiatrist took that time to tell me that she was officially diagnosing him with an eating disorder. Obviously I had heard of anorexia and bulimia, but this one was new to me. She said it was called ARFID (avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder). I was floored.

When he returned from the restroom, he tearfully agreed to try and add some foods to his diet–vanilla ice cream and string cheese were the only two foods we could get him to agree to add. We went to the store and I let him pick out any ice cream treat he would agree to eat. For a few days, he would agree to eat one, but was never able to finish it. He would always leave one bite behind. I decided that this was a good start, but that it just wasn’t going to be enough to get the weight gain moving in the right direction. I called our pediatrician, who recommended that we get him drinking nutritional shakes. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.

My husband and I sat down with him to discuss it. He was resistant, but eventually agreed that he knew he had to do it, and would do his best. The first night was incredibly difficult for him. He barely sipped through the straw and cried a lot. He maybe drank a third of a shake and it took all night. The second night my husband took him into our office and shut the door. My husband told him that he wouldn’t be able to move on with his night until half a bottle was gone. They watched videos and hung out together. Two hours, and a few tears later, they emerged victorious. The next night it took 30 minutes. We are moving in the right direction and hope to get him up to two bottles per day. We are a long way from there, but definitely progressing.

With all of the issues we have encountered over the years, I never dreamt an eating disorder would join the list. But like everything else we have dealt with, we are handling it one day at a time. We are determined to help him gain weight for his overall health, his mental wellness, and to keep him on this life-changing, anti-anxiety medication.

The other night, as I tucked him into bed, he apologized to me. He said he was sorry that he had messed up and wasn’t eating properly. He said it was really hard for him, but he was going to keep trying. I told him how proud I was of him for recognizing that he needed to work on this and for having a good attitude. I told him I couldn’t imagine how hard this was, and I promised to keep trying my hardest, too.


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The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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