Tuesday 12 December 2017

Ask the expert: ‘My daughter (15) has been looking up anorexia sites — what should I do?’

David is a psychologist; send your questions to davidcarey@herald.ie

Picture posed.
Picture posed.

Question: I had to use my daughter’s laptop last night and noticed from her search history that she was looking at a couple of ProAna websites — these are websites that encourage anorexia, as far as I can see. My daughter is 15 and is a healthy size 10. I asked her about it and she totally dismissed it and said she was just curious. I’m trying not to panic but my first reaction is to lock her in her room and never let her go on the internet again! What should I do?

I understand your concern and your worry. Any parent would feel the way you do.

Your question illustrates how important it is for parents to be vigilant and watch what websites their children are accessing. I think you need to have a frank and open conversation with your daughter. You need to ask her what motivated her to go on that website.

There are so many possible reasons. She could be concerned about a friend of hers. She could be simply curious. Of course she could also be concerned about her weight.

It is always important to look for the evidence to substantiate your fears. In a case like this you should ask yourself some important questions. Has your daughter been eating less of late? Has she been spending excessive time looking in the mirror? Has she been asking about diets or about the fat content of foods? Has she expressed any concern about her weight or more than the usual 15-year-old interest in how her clothes look on her? If the answer to more than one of the questions is ‘no’, then it is unlikely that she is at risk of an eating disorder. If the answer is ‘yes’, you need to talk to her some more.

Your question also illustrates the importance of having a good line of communication with your teenage children. Once they begin to use technology it is important to let them know you will take any steps necessary to see they are protected from harm. Typically, and this is easier when they are younger, we inspect the web history on their laptops or tablets. We let them know that in the family we don’t have secrets and that everyone looks out for one another at all times. If you have established this sort of healthy relationship with your children, they won’t be unduly upset if you inspect their laptop or tablet now and then. The same goes for smart phones and other mobiles.

Children should not have their laptops, phones and tablets up in their room at bedtime. For one thing, the sort of light emitted by the screens interferes with the brain’s sleep centres. Additionally, most teens tend to want to stay on the phone quite late texting friends or checking Facebook pages. I am well aware that setting these limits can lead to arguments. No matter what, though, it is really important to be a good parent, not a suspicious parent, but a good parent who constantly lets their children know they care enough to take any steps necessary to protect them.

As for your daughter, based on your question, it is unlikely she is at risk of an eating disorder. There are far more innocent possibilities. Talk to her, not in an accusing way, but in a serious, concerned way. Ask her about her motivation, listen to her answer and respect what she says. Your eyes and ears will tell you, as you observe her in the future, if she is in danger.


Our son gets into scrapes in the school yard. He is five. We never had this trouble before he went to school. I really need advice because I am so embarrassed by this and it kills me when this happens. I have done charts and they only last a week due to the fact that he gets bored with it. I am planning to scrap all of his treats for a week but is that too long or too short?

Punishment will not solve this problem. Your son needs to learn how to cope with difficulties and how to resolve disputes without resorting to aggression. These are vitally important lessons for a child to learn and they need to be learned at a young age. Research has shown that aggressive children, in the early years, are at great risk of growing up to be aggressive adults. The stakes are high, so it is time to act swiftly.

Children in the early years need to develop what is called a “feeling vocabulary”. This means they need to be able to use words to solve problems instead of violence and aggression (that includes verbal aggression). These are skills typically taught in pre-school settings and I wonder if your son has had the opportunity to attend pre-school.

It is interesting that you say he never had these difficulties before he went to school. I take that to mean you are referring to primary school.

I wonder how well he is adjusting to the new demands of being in the infant classroom. The transition from pre-school to primary school can be difficult for some children.

You need to talk to your son and remind him that when he is angry he should use his words, not his arms or legs, to solve problems with other children.

You also need to talk to him about his feelings about school. You need to ask him if there are any children bothering him, calling him names, bullying him. You also need to talk to his teacher this September and be sure that someone observes him in the yard. There is a danger that if things don’t settle down he could get a reputation as a difficult child.

The reason charts are not working is most likely because they are being used at home and not in school. Since the behaviour is happening in school it is in school that the major intervention should be put in place. In general, the longer you wait to try and solve the problem, the worse it gets.

Self-control and self-regulation are amongst the most important life skills a child can learn. If they are not learned, the child is at high risk of a lifetime of difficulty getting along with others and working cooperatively as an adult.

Talk to his teacher, ask for some observations and ask if some data can be collected about how often this happens and how serious it is. Once that is completed, you will be able to work on an intervention plan that will solve the problem.

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