Self-Abuse, Eating Disorders, and Addiction
Watch out for signs of serious trouble, depression, or self-abusive behavior, especially in the teen years. Keep paying attention to what is going on, even if the child initially ignores you. The more trouble she is in, the more she will ignore you. Part of step parenting (all parenting) means persistently showing you care, your concern, and positive reinforcement, even as the child cuts you cold. Believe me, she will hear the care in your voice, and it matters. Giving a child a sense of her own strengths will help her learn to respect her body, respect and care for herself, and feel confident enough to resist peer pressures.
Here is a list of things to look for as you assess whether your step child can use outside counseling:
- Self-abuse includes cutting, burning, extreme risk-taking, and other self-destructive behaviors. While piercings, tattoos, and branding may be the style, there is a difference between minor risk-taking and keeping up with the crowd, and major self-damage caused by depression.
- Eating disorders, including anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (bingeing and purging), are common among teens and younger children. If your step child is developing an eating disorder, you may be the last person to notice. An anorexic’s loss of weight may be so gradual you do not notice. Bulimics can maintain a normal weight. Watch to see if she heads to the bathroom right after eating. Eating disorders require professional help, so do not try the do-it-yourself approach
- Substance use is not the same as substance abuse, and kids will do experimentation in their teen years. When a child or teen is already stressed, however, substance use can easily turn to abuse. Substance abuse is rarely obvious or glaring as trash baskets full of empty gin bottles, track marks on an arm, or scary people tromping through your house bearing syringes and burning all your spoons. Look for other signs: plunging school grades, change in weight, or loss of interest in life. By the time a child is addicted to a substance, there are other visible troubles.
If you are unsure how to approach your step child/biological child when you think there is trouble, contact a professional. You do not want things to get out of hand. I knew a family one time who talked about trouble in “another family” as a way of trying to flush out the trouble with their own child. The parents figured by raising an example it would open their communication line to talk about the “what if” and what was happening and should not be. Although it may have worked a couple of times, it is not a reliable method to get information out of your children. Seek professional help or speak with a school counselor to get the correct way to determine if your child or step child is having behavior problems and why.