How do I deal with my adolescent son's burgeoning exercise obsession?
August 4, 2014 6:50 PM   Subscribe

My almost 11 year old son has started developing what I fear is an obsession with exercise.

Background:I am married, 3 kids (oldest is 16 yo boy and almost 11 yo boy/girl twins.) My oldest son and daughter, are similar, physically (they are both "fluffy" for lack of a better word.) They also look more alike, than my 11 yo son. The oldest likes to read, play video games & draw. My daughter likes to surf the net, play with her dolls, paint her nails. She was in dance from the ages of 3 to 7, then gymnastics from 7 to 10. Her twin brother has always liked some kind of sport, specifically,martial arts & gymnastics/parkour. He has focused mainly on the latter since he was 7 yo. He has always been my "picky eater". I used to fight with him to eat food (even the stuff I know he liked!) There have been few dinners where he'd excuse himself to use the bathroom and could be heard throwing up in the bathroom. He is going through a growth spurt because he tells me how hungry he is all the time. He has access to plenty of food. He is very critical of his siblings and their weight. My oldest is probably about 20 lbs over his ideal weight. My daughter is about 15 lbs over. My daughter and oldest son have the same large, heavy bone structure as my mother (who has always ranged from "big boned" to currently obese.) My son, in question, is smaller in stature, lean, lanky, athletic with a naturally high metabolism. I bought jump ropes for all of use since I was not going to be working this Summer, I wanted some activity we could all do together.

My husband and I overheard a particularly nasty argument between the twins this past weekend. He was telling her he wished she wasn't his sister. We called 11 yo son in to ask what was going on. He told us they (his sibs were picking on him) he had been lifting weights (my husband's) while they were all watching tv together and they complained. He complained that his twin sister was supposed to be working out with him, she'd done a few reps and said her arms hurt. It upset him. My husband and I have found him jumping rope (day and night while watching tv too many times to count) since I bought the jump ropes about a month ago. He confessed that he is concerned about becoming "fat", like his sibs. We explained to him how he is physically different from his sibs. We thought we had an understanding with him. We the. Talked to our other kids separate from the 11 yo son. They explained they were concerned about their brother's new obsession with exercise. They told us that their brother will eat yogurt (or anything) and say that was x number calories and start exercising. They seem genuinely worried about him and tried to express that to him and he got defensive. Please tell me how to help my son with this. He tends to be on the "high"'anxiety side. He is generally a sweet, very smart, fun kid. All Input is appreciated. Thanks.
posted by getyourlife to Human Relations (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You should encourage him to work out and exercise but tell him that it's his decision and he doesn't need to be involved in his siblings affairs.
posted by rr at 6:53 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

He throws up after eating, counts calories to exercise them off and exercises obsessively? You should take him to a doctor because he has an eating disorder.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:00 PM on August 4, 2014 [136 favorites]

"There have been few dinners where he'd excuse himself to use the bathroom and could be heard throwing up in the bathroom."

This is serious stuff. Please book him an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders.
posted by amaire at 7:00 PM on August 4, 2014 [29 favorites]

I think this warrants professional guidance/intervention, be it from a doctor or therapist.
posted by krakus at 7:01 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

This isn't a burgeoning exercise obsession. It's a burgeoning eating disorder. Please take him to a qualified professional as soon as possible.

In the meantime, protect your other children--they don't need to be made to feel bad about themselves, and it's not ok for him to talk to them like that, mental health issues or no.
posted by MeghanC at 7:02 PM on August 4, 2014 [11 favorites]

Missed the throwing up part. Probably time for a therapist.
posted by rr at 7:03 PM on August 4, 2014

If he were a girl, I bet you would be seriously freaked out about this. Don't ignore disordered thoughts and behaviors just because he's a boy. Intentionally vomiting, in particular, is bad news and something you need to address with a professional.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:05 PM on August 4, 2014 [21 favorites]

I am not a doctor and am not trying to diagnose over the internet - but the "purging" part of bulimia can manifest as excessive exercise, not just through throwing up. It sounds like both are present here. You need to speak to a professional--your pediatrician may have references for this.

I think it would probably be good for your other kids to talk to someone also, because no doubt this is impacting them.
posted by sallybrown at 7:05 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would immediately consult a doctor. Don't take no for an answer.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:09 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

There have been few dinners where he'd excuse himself to use the bathroom and could be heard throwing up in the bathroom.

Whoa, this is not some little detail to bury in the middle of a huge paragraph. You need to take him to the doctor about this. Eating disorders aren't gender-specific.
posted by John Cohen at 7:11 PM on August 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

Talk to a doctor. Rule out stomach issues. Get him a psychotherapy consult. Otherwise, some kids are very active and that's okay, and I wouldn't rule out sibling-created drama since most of this has not been witnessed by you but instead reported second-hand.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:12 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Between the throwing up at meals, the counting calories and the obsessive exercising, this sounds exactly like an eating disorder. This is where you go to his doctor or to a therapist. The point is not whether or not he has a physical body type like his siblings, it is that he has some seriously disordered views on body image and they are starting to cause him problems. The earlier you help him with this -- and by help him I mean get him to a professional -- the better.
posted by jeather at 7:17 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I literally felt my eyes widen when I got to the part about throwing up after eating.

He is in eating-disorder territory. I started this when I was not much older than your son, and it ruled my life until my late thirties. I really, really wish someone had intervened when I was a kid.

This is really serious. Please get some specialist, professional help.
posted by Salamander at 7:20 PM on August 4, 2014 [10 favorites]

To be clear, he might need help with his anxiety, but it's not inherently abnormal to love exercising or being active, and maybe he feels like he doesn't fit in and needs a reason to exercise.

My ex used to hate eating and vomit sometimes because he had reflux and an esophageal stricture. He was underweight throughout his childhood as a result. So it's important to rule out medical causes.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:20 PM on August 4, 2014 [13 favorites]

I agree with everyone else. Doctor immediately. Like tomorrow.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:25 PM on August 4, 2014

One of my kids was edging to an eating disorder at that age too. I downplayed it because he was a boy and I was more concerned about other issues, but fortunately one of his doctors alerted me. It's more treatable the earlier you intervene - it's been two years and now only flares up in super stressful circumstances. The therapist will want to look at what's stressing him out and maybe do some family talk or play therapy or a short course of meds if there's something underlying. Memail me if you want to talk about it.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:29 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The times he threw up were specifically on nights where I insisted he eat what I had prepared for dinner. They were meals that he decided he didn't want to eat at first sight. He has control issues, for sure. He went to therapy a few years ago for a different issue. He was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with mixed emotions. We also went to a couple of family sessions with him. The issue that he previously saw a therapist for, has resolved. I feared the exercising was a manifestation of a weight/image disorder. I already have an appointment with his pediatrician scheduled.
posted by getyourlife at 7:34 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hope this podcast about treatment of eating disorders (which manifest in many ways) is helpful.
posted by bq at 7:40 PM on August 4, 2014

Agree with all above. However, I would also start pulling up everyone in the family on negatively commenting on anyone's appearance. From now on, no one is allowed to critisise how anyone looks, include critising themselves (woman in particular are trained to do this). It's mean, and people don't forget.
posted by kjs4 at 7:45 PM on August 4, 2014 [27 favorites]

They all go a little nuts around puberty so don't totally freak out. You already knew he had control issues, which is common in people who develop eating disorders. This may have nothing to do with grandma or siblings. It may be time to have him evaluated by a mental health professional or two. He may need anxiety medication. Basically, don't focus on the behaviors, focus on the reason behind the behaviors. You may be able to correct his eating and over exercising but, unless you treat what is causing it, he's only going to find something else to control.

Even though your son's behavior is an indicator of his own mental health, he still has a realistic fear of his siblings turning out like grandma. He loves them and doesn't want them to have to be like that. He can't control them so he controls himself. Maybe you could steer him more towards preparing healthier meals for the family? Allow him to choose the recipes and ingredients for the family meal once a week and see if it helps.
posted by myselfasme at 7:51 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Control issues. That's an extraordinarily common cause of eating disorders.
posted by Neekee at 7:52 PM on August 4, 2014 [13 favorites]

And don't let anyone tell you this behavior is okay because your son is not thin enough. Eating disorders can do lots of damage before someone is very underweight and with bulimia some people never become underweight. There is lots of damage that can happen to the body.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:58 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: From my experience, I just want to warn you that it sounds like there is a family dynamic where the other two kids get along better than he does with either of them. That's not necessarily a bad thing but it can lead to a him-versus-everyone-else in the family mentality. He might see their concern for him as jealousy that he's not as heavy as they are or worry that they're trying to make him as heavy as they are. Being one of three is tough. Consciously or not, he might be trying to prove that he's not like the other two kids.

I'm one of four kids and I struggled to find a way to distinguish myself. My one sister was the popular opinionated one, my other sister was the smart one, my brother was The Boy, and I was the weirdo. I was also the skinny one. My sister and mother were very heavy and I was worried about becoming heavy too but I also had a lot of energy to work out, enjoyed doing different things, found something to do that I really got into (karate), and I wanted to be different so I would eat things like turkey burgers or fish while others in our family weren't interested in that. Then when I was in high school, I joined the cross country team even though I didn't know what it was and it helped me make friends with upperclassmen as well as my peers, which made me feel a little "cool."

My point is that I realized recently that, while I'm in my early 30s, I'm still a little terrified of not being "the skinny one" in our family, because then who am I? It's not that my size was a problem but it affected relationships with my siblings. I remember them making fun of me because when I needed a dress for a special occasion, a size 2 was too big (those were the days). I did not have an eating disorder but I remember my sister saying that she wanted to lose weight so she was going to follow me around and do what I did and eat what I ate. I remember my father asking me why I was losing weight doing karate and my little brother wasn't.

I don't know what advice I have for you on a practical level but I'd encourage you to ban the F word (fat) from your house and involve the kids in cooking. I don't know if that's something you do already but I think that's a great thing because it's important to learn how to cook and learning something will give all of the kids confidence. Plus I feel like exercise is something you can not do but you have to eat so you need to learn how to cook. Encourage them to love their bodies for what they can do, not how they look. I can't starve myself because I run and I don't want to pass out or get sick running. I don't love my thighs but they're a part of me and together, we can run pretty far. And tell them how proud you are of them for how smart they are, how kind they are, how hard they work in school. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 8:01 PM on August 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Also, get him out of gymnastics. Weight is a constant topic in gymnastics and it's a sport about perfectionism and it will not benefit him. Parkour, martial arts or something team-based would be much healthier emotionally for him.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:08 PM on August 4, 2014 [17 favorites]

You need to bring these concerns to his coach or wherever he does parkour and check out the atmosphere there. It's not uncommon for athletes to get mild pressure to stay in shape, even as little kids and develop eating disorders. It's pretty common in high school. He is getting these messages from somewhere and a frank talk with his coaches is in order. I wouldn't threaten to make him stop but they need to be aware.

Having said that very active kids are going to be very active. Does he get enough running around having fun till he's exhausted time? Friends he can bike with and play street hockey? Some people need to burn off energy and its good to learn to do it in a non competitive environment. Maybe he could start doing yard work with you or going for walks or to the park, physically taxing and rewarding in a different way than "sports".
posted by fshgrl at 8:09 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also don't underestimate how nasty kids can be to each other trying to bend each other to their will. Your other kids might be genuinely worried about his counting calories or they might just not agree with him or not care. His getting upset that his sister isn't working out shows they are locked in some kind of power struggle. Which isn't uncommon, anyone who has a family knows that.
posted by fshgrl at 8:16 PM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Control" is half of an eating disorder. Body dysmorphia is the other half. Nerves that literally disrupt appetite and can cause nausea are--okay, the math doesn't work, it's all big, is what I'm saying. Eating disorders are heavily comorbid with anxiety. Blahblahblah, most of this is stuff you already know. The real thing I feel compelled to comment for: if you already know you have a kid who has this sort of problem, you need to start treating therapy and mental health treatment like it's going to be an ongoing part of his life at least through adolescence. If he's got this sort of tendency, he doesn't have the sort of problem where you can just go to a therapist a couple times and that fixes it forever.

Puberty hormones are hell to ride out when you've got this sort of inclination, and it needs ongoing monitoring and support. Most of all, he's going to need to have the sort of relationship with his mental health professionals where he gets to the point where he can actually talk to them with complete honesty. The fact that a particular behavioral issue resolves does not mean your kid is okay. Teenagers are really, really, really good at hiding from their parents that they are not okay, and, well, some kids are precocious. Even aside from that, though, the same mental health issue that leads to maladaptive behavior A today can lead to maladaptive behavior B tomorrow. Fixing one behavioral issue while leaving the kid off-balance just means you've started the timer on the next one. All of this is basically true of adults, too, so even more reason to deal with it now; it's unlikely to go away completely.
posted by Sequence at 8:32 PM on August 4, 2014 [12 favorites]

The times he threw up were specifically on nights where I insisted he eat what I had prepared for dinner. They were meals that he decided he didn't want to eat at first sight. He has control issues, for sure.

Or he's a picky kid who felt sick after eating something he didn't want to eat.

I think you need to rule out physical causes and then I think you should strongly consider family therapy. I worry that he's been identified as the problem, the one who is different, the odd one out, and that he's serving as a lighting rod for other issues in your family.

I would definitely do this before taking him out of sports that he enjoys.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:02 PM on August 4, 2014 [17 favorites]

Also, look, I'm not trying to be overly harsh. Kids who won't eat are super frustrating. My son is picky and it drives me nuts when he eats one-third of a chicken nugget and then decides that his peanut butter sandwich looked at him funny and then won't go to bed because he's hungry. It's maddening. I understand your frustration and worry about his eating habits--lord knows a very skinny child can activate some primal worrying part of the brain that doesn't even make sense. And yes, he should be evaluated if you are this worried.

However, I'm getting the sense that this is more about how your family operates as a unit than about this particular kid, who sounds within the range of normal for a mildly snotty (because he's 11), active, picky kid.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:17 PM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here's the thing: the serious issues are the eating problems (picky eater, your insistence that he eat certain things, his throwing up) and the family dynamic (your other kids complaining about your son lifting weights, the fighting, the body-type judgment). What you focus on is your son's fixation with exercise. Could it be that you and other members of your family don't "relate" to (possibly even resent) someone who wants to exercise, and that's causing a lot of tension, and your son is using athleticism and exercise as a way to distinguish himself?

There's a whole host of issues going on here, and I have no idea why you're picking on the least serious.
posted by deanc at 9:44 PM on August 4, 2014 [18 favorites]

I remember this from a textbook and can't find the particular study I'm thinking of, but I know that participation in athletics, gymnastics in particular, does influence the development of anorexia and orthorexia, for gymnastics at least in part (according to the second link) due to authoritarian coaching and subjective judgement of body aesthetics (with thin, pubescent bodies favoured). It's at least possible involvement in the sport - maybe even just hearing high-achieving older kids talk about weight and bodies with concern - might play a role in some of the behaviours you're seeing.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:53 PM on August 4, 2014

Other posters have touched on this, but more directly: your son is ashamed of his siblings and disgusted by their bodies. Are you supporting the other two and letting them know that their bodies are great and amazing machines, no matter what they look like? If there is ever an age to shame someone for their body weight (there isn't!), 11-15 really, really isn't it, because developing low self-esteem and body image at that point in life can really cause damage that's difficult to undo.

Telling your son "your body is different" isn't exactly sending the strongest message there, and I agree that you may need a therapist to get through to him. Even if he isn't on the road to an eating disorder (and I agree with many other posters that it sounds like he could be), he could really destroy his relationships with his sibs, behaving the way he is now.
posted by chaiminda at 3:47 AM on August 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

The young rope-rider and deanc said what I came here to say. It is normal, indeed healthy, to want to exercise. It is okay to count calories a bit. it sounds to me that the "exercise obsession" actually is your son wanting to be healthier than the rest of the family, which is good for him.

The problems are his control issues, the vomiting, and the family dynamic in which he is treated as a weirdo for wanting to exercise and be fit. These are not easy things to deal with and they are not solvable in an AskMe post. But as others have said, it sounds like professional intervention may be needed. I would also suggest that you not think of this as only your son's problem, but something that may require adjustments from the whole family because it sounds like there are attitude problem all around.

And please distinguish between your son's desire to be healthy and your son's actual problems. Wanting to work out and eat healthily are good things, and he should be allowed and encouraged to pursue them. The true problems are what appear to be a burgeoning eating disorder and a troubling and likely related family dynamic.
posted by Tehhund at 3:51 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't agree with the posters who have said that what he's doing is normal and healthy. Exercising all day and counting calories would be worrying behavior in an adult who wanted to lose weight--he is a skinny 11-year-old. Your post also did not mention an obsession with health, but an obsession with not being fat--though many would not agree, I don't think those are the same thing and to me, the latter is a huge red flag that he is obsessing about how he looks and not how he feels.
posted by chaiminda at 4:06 AM on August 5, 2014 [12 favorites]

How often do you tell all your children that they are wonderful and loved because of exactly who they already are and that they are valued because of it? It sounds to me like your 11 year old doesn't hear that enough and instead has conflated being thin with being lovable and valuable. He isn't on the brink of an eating disorder. He already has one. He needs a better family dynamic than what you're offering or allowing.
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:28 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Could it be that you and other members of your family don't "relate" to (possibly even resent) someone who wants to exercise, and that's causing a lot of tension, and your son is using athleticism and exercise as a way to distinguish himself?

I think this is perfectly backwards. It sounds a lot more like your son is the one who doesn't relate to, or even resents, those who don't want to constantly exercise. In the post itself you say that he's the one upset with his sister for not working out with him; he's the one calling his only slightly overweight siblings fat; he's the one obsessively jumping rope at all hours of the day.

Your son needs therapy for his body dysmorphia. You need to make sure your other children aren't feeling shamed by him.
posted by Quilford at 7:37 AM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I mean, come on. He's the one wanting to disown his sister because she wouldn't work out with him.
posted by Quilford at 7:47 AM on August 5, 2014

Wtf? She has already sought therapy and helped her son, and is asking if the exercise obsession is alarming, and lined up a pediatrician's appointment. This is an involved and caring mother who is aware of her family dynamics, therapy benefits and is trying to figure out if this aspect is within normal range or another danger sign she needs to follow up on. OP, you're on the right track already and a good mom.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:57 AM on August 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Okay this is maybe a bit left-field-y but if he is willing to share this with you I would look into things he might be reading about online. I may be reading into things but the way he talks about his interactions with his siblings sounds like a mindset you might get by hanging out in some forums online.

You might also want to fight fire with fire — find a healthy fitness program geared towards kids his age which has an emphasis on both exercise and eating healthily (i.e. enough food for a lanky growing 11 year old). It may be that if he does feel disconnected, getting another individual in a mentor relationship who is also passionate about being fit may help him, especially if that person presents a healthy attitude towards weight and eating.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:26 PM on August 5, 2014

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