Eating Disorders in Teens
Eating disorders often take root during the early years of adolescence. Our teen years are a time when our daughters and sons become more aware of the social demands for a certain physical look.
Too often, they may feel they fall short.
The teen years offer a fertile ground for an eating disorder and other health problems to develop.
Certain features of adolescence – athletic competition, insecurity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, social pressures and stress – may contribute to your child's disordered eating patterns.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorders, are serious health conditions that should not be ignored.
Signs Your Teen May Have an Eating Disorder
Different eating disorders feature unique symptoms.
However, there are some common behaviors that may indicate your daughter or son is struggling with an eating disorder, such as:
- Constant worry about being overweight, obsessed with losing weight
- Dental cavities
- Eating in secret
- Eating large amounts of high-fat foods and sweets
- Eating more food at a meal than is considered the norm
- Excessive exercise
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Obsessed with celebrities’ body shapes and wanting to look like them
- Showing disgust at their eating habits
- Skipping meals
- Using diuretics and/or laxatives
- Visiting the bathroom soon after each meal
These warning signs should be considered possible symptoms of an eating disorder.
Signs of Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa is a complex mental health disorder where your child may purposely restrict food intake.
Teens with anorexia may restrict calories because they feel a lack of control over other aspects of their life. Another possible cause is that your daughter or son may have an intense fear of gaining weight. Possibly he or she just wants to lose some weight and the dieting becomes compulsive.
In some teens, distorted body image keeps them engaged in food restriction because they wrongly see themselves as obese.
Anorexia can result in severe medical complications if untreated, or even cause death.
Signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:
- Cannot maintain a healthy weight
- Constant dieting
- Denying hunger
- Developing eating rituals
- Dramatic weight loss
- Dry skin
- Excessive exercising
- Fear of gaining weight
- Highly restrict their diet
- Menstrual cycles cease
- Obsessed with counting calories
- Thinning of the hair
Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that features eating large quantities of foods, usually junk foods, over a period of time. Afterward, your child may then eliminate the contents of the stomach through purging.
These efforts to expel the food from the body often come from feeling a lack of control over their life.
Some health professionals point to the modern “selfie” culture and the extreme focus on body image as a factor in bulimia. Other teens might develop bulimia due to weight restrictions on certain activities they are involved in, like ballet or modeling.
Signs and symptoms of bulimia that parents can look for include:
- Broken blood vessels in the eyes
- Chronic gastric reflux
- Dizziness, fainting
- Fluctuating weight
- Hiding or hoarding food
- Obsessed with their appearance
- Serious electrolyte imbalance
- Sores in the mouth or throat
Signs of Binge Eating Disorders
Those teen children who suffer from binge eating disorders use food to manage emotions they seek to avoid. These unwanted emotions can include anger, boredom, guilt, sadness, stress or a sense of being out of control.
If your daughter or son has a binge eating disorder, they will try to offset these negative feelings by consuming large amounts of food.
Despite the serious psychological issues that underlie teen bingeing, the disorder is often misdiagnosed as obesity.
Signs and symptoms of binge eating disorders include:
- Attempts to hide the binge eating behaviors
- Continuing to eat even after feeling full
- Feeling ashamed or guilty about the binge eating
- Finding food wrappers in the trash or in a loved one’s room
- Food missing from kitchen cupboards
- Frequent dieting
- Frequent late-night eating
- Rapid eating
- Significant weight gain
- Suicidal thoughts
How to Help Prevent Teen Disorder Eating
Is your teen showing some of the behaviors and thoughts that may precede the development of an eating disorder? If so, open communication is key.
Talking about your child's concerns at an early stage can help direct them toward healthy ways of thinking about food.
Some parenting tips for helping prevent eating disorders include:
- Building self-esteem. Teens are often insecure about their changing bodies. Help them feel good about themselves by pointing out their special skills and qualities that have nothing to do with their looks.
- Considering media influence. Teach your teen boy or girl that celebrities’ photos are often photo-shopped and unnatural. Explain how cultural preferences about body shapes are ever-changing, and that we should not be a slave to them.
- Discouraging emotional eating. Explain there are better ways to cope with sad emotions or stress. Teach your teen that strict controls over diet or over-consumption of ‘comfort foods’ is not healthy.
- Discussing the dangers of dieting. Teach your teen daughter or son about the dangers of robbing the body of important nutrients through fad dieting. Explain that the body has nutritional needs while it is still growing.
- Keeping an eye on social media. A young teen being ridiculed over social media for their shape or size may take drastic actions in response. If your teen is being bullied online they need support.
- Setting a healthy example. Parents might obsess about dieting and weight, or complain about their shape. This can launch disordered thoughts in a young teen.
If you are the parent of a teenage girl, she might enjoy "The Body Project." The Body Project is a group-based body acceptance program that is designed to help girls and teens develop a positive body image, or ‘body positivity.’
The program helps young females reduce negative thoughts about their body shape and to love their body. The girls engage in verbal or written activities that help them confront unrealistic body expectations and beauty ideals.
Treatment for Teen Eating Disorders
If your teen uses food as a tool for managing emotional pain, it’s time to reach out to a health care and/or mental health professional for assistance. Each teenager suffering from an eating disorder has a unique set of factors that led to their condition.
For instance, a daughter or son with anorexia may have obsessive-compulsive disorder or be a perfectionist, where someone with bulimia may be impulsive.
These differences require the treatment approach to be tailored.
Treatment elements for teen eating disorders include:
1. Holistic activities. Complementary holistic activities, such as yoga, art therapy, and mindfulness meditation, can help teens regulate stress.
2. Medication. Some teens may benefit from antidepressant drug therapy.
3. Nutritional education. Your teen will work with a dietician to learn healthy eating skills and reach a target body weight.
4. Psychotherapy. Treatment for teen eating disorders relies on various types of evidence-based psychotherapies. Some of these include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- Family-Based Treatment
- Family Therapy
- Group Therapy
- Interpersonal therapy
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
When outpatient treatment has not been successful, residential treatment offers the next level of care. It provides a chance for your daughter or son to overcome an eating disorder within a supportive environment.
Residential care allows for a more customized and intensive approach to teen eating disorder treatment. These programs also provide ongoing academic support.
Embark Behavioral Health Provides Comprehensive Treatment for Teens With Eating Disorders
We provide treatment for teens with anxiety, depression and other mental health or substance abuse issues, including eating disorders. Our team of clinical and medical professionals specializes in working with adolescents and young adults.