More than 10 million American children attend a camp each summer. Because these children often spend weeks â€“ and sometimes months â€“ away from parental supervision, Eating Recovery Center, an international center for eating disorders recovery, urges parents to be aware of summer camp triggers that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder in their camp-going children.
â€œEvery year, Eating Recovery Center sees many young patients who cite summer camp as the place where their disordered eating behaviors either began or intensified,â€ said Jamie Manwaring, PhD, primary therapist at Eating Recovery Centerâ€™s Behavioral Hospital for Children and Adolescents. â€œIt is important to recognize that summer camps do not â€˜causeâ€™ eating disorders; however, campsâ€™ environments can often be triggering for a child with the genetic or temperamental predisposition for an eating disorder.â€
The onset of puberty, typically occurring between the ages of 10 and 14 for girls and 12 and 16 for boys, is one of the two most common times when eating disorders develop. Children in this age range who have a family history of eating disorders, who have previously engaged in disordered eating or who have highly sensitive, perfectionistic temperaments may be more likely to be triggered by camp activities or situations.
Potentially triggering activities or situations may include a competitive athletic environment, exposure to bunkmatesâ€™ or friendsâ€™ disordered eating behaviors, an intense focus on health and nutrition or anxiety about trying to â€œfit inâ€ with new camp friends. Without ongoing parental supervision, children who begin engaging in disordered eating behaviors will often maintain, or intensify them throughout the duration of camp without their parentsâ€™ knowledge.
To help parents plan a healthy, fun camp experience for their children and proactively practice eating disorders prevention, Eating Recovery Center offers these five tips:
- Look into the way meals are structured at your childâ€™s camp. Are mealtimes staffed so that camp counselors sit with campers and are available to notice if a child has stopped eating or drastically changed his or her eating habits?
- Do some comparative research if you intend on sending your child to a sports camp. Children with a family history of eating disorders may be better suited at a camp that is focused on recreation and fun, rather than one that is focused on competition and intense fitness.
- Send your child to camp with positive messages. Emphasize to your child that the goal of summer camp is to have fun and meet new friends. Remind your children that you love them for who they are, not what specific activities they excel at, and that it does not matter if they are the fastest runners or strongest swimmers at camp.
- Check in with your child while he or she is at camp. Use phone calls, emails and letters as an opportunity to ask open-ended questions about his or her camp experience. Look and listen for any sudden changes in your childâ€™s overall outlook.
- Keep an eye out for signs of eating disorderswhen your child returns home from camp. Is your child eating smaller portions or restricting certain foods altogether? Has eating become a power struggle? Has your childâ€™s exercise regimen significantly increased or have you â€œcaughtâ€ him or her exercising in secret? Do you suspect purging after meals? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it may be time to seek help for a potential eating disorder.
â€œWhen parents see children after they have been away at a month- or summer-long camp, changes in body weight, overall health, general demeanor and outlook can become that much more noticeable,â€ explains Dr. Manwaring. â€œIf your child exhibits worrisome behaviors after returning home, do not wait to seek help. With eating disorders, the earlier the intervention, the more successful the treatment will be. Early intervention saves lives.â€
Parents are encouraged to seek an eating disorders assessment if they notice troubling behaviors in their children or adolescents when they return home from camp. Eating disorders recovery is entirely possible with early intervention and proper treatment from qualified professionals.