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July 20, 2023

What Parents Should Know About Eating Disorders in Teens

Being a parent of a teenager can feel like walking through a maze with constant turns and surprises. Among the many challenges this phase presents, there’s a critical area that often goes overlooked or misunderstood — the prevalence and implications of eating disorders. These disorders can have a profound impact on the physical and mental well-being of teenagers, making it crucial for us as parents to understand and address them.

Eating disorders are serious conditions characterized by unhealthy eating habits and distorted views of body image. They affect people of all genders, ages, and backgrounds, but they are particularly prevalent among teenagers. According to research, eating disorders typically develop during adolescence, making it an especially vulnerable time for young individuals.

As parents, it’s important we approach the topic of eating disorders with sensitivity and open communication. Below we’ll explore how to avoid judgment and criticism, and instead, create a safe and supportive environment for our teenagers to express their feelings and concerns, and help them overcome these types of challenges.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that impact a person’s health, emotions, and ability to perform essential functions in life. They span a wide range of behaviors, all of which involve an unhealthy relationship with food and body image.

It’s crucial to remember that an eating disorder is a serious mental health condition, not just a lifestyle choice or phase.

Moreover, eating disorders are not selective; they can affect any individual, regardless of their gender, age, or race. An eating disorder can infiltrate all aspects of a person’s life, often becoming an all-consuming focus. This intensity and pervasiveness can make it especially challenging for teens, underlining the necessity of understanding, empathy, and at times, professional guidance.

What Causes Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders stem from a mix of behavioral, biological, emotional, psychological, and social factors. Genetics can play a crucial role; some believe a predisposition to eating disorders may be inherited. Other biological factors, such as hormonal imbalances, can also contribute.

On the environmental front, societal pressure and media influence around body image, personal experiences such as bullying, and the use of food as a coping mechanism for trauma or stress are all potential contributors. To help understand how experiences like bullying might relate to the development of eating disorders, we recommend reading our Parent’s Guide to Bullying.

Teens may also use an eating disorder, even subconsciously, as a coping mechanism to manage overwhelming emotions or to alleviate stress and anxiety. This is especially true if they have recently experienced trauma or major life changes, since exerting control over their eating habits, such as when, where, and how much they eat, can provide an unhealthy sense of stability when everything else feels chaotic. Additionally, certain personality traits such as perfectionism or self-criticism can also contribute to the development of eating disorders.

Types of Eating Disorders

There are several types of eating disorders, with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder being the most common ones. Each disorder manifests itself in distinct behaviors, but all involve a distorted relationship with food and body image.

It’s also essential to note that many people don’t fit perfectly into these categories, and a substantial number of eating disorders fall into the category known as Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED). Our Parent’s Guide to Body Positivity can be an excellent resource for parents aiming to foster a positive body image in their teens, a key component in preventing and combating these disorders.

Signs of Eating Disorders in Teens

Teens with eating disorders often display numerous behavioral and physical signs, though the exact manifestation may vary from one individual to another. Keep in mind, these signs don’t automatically indicate an eating disorder, but they do warrant open conversation and, potentially, professional consultation.

Body Insecurity

During adolescence, many teens will face insecurity or self-esteem issues. However, teens with eating disorders often experience it at a heightened level. This dissatisfaction can evolve into an unhealthy obsession, leading to continuous comparisons with others’ bodies. This can lead to  a distorted body image, where they perceive themselves very differently from reality.

In addition to comparisons, they may also make self-deprecating remarks about their appearance or body shape. A fixation on ‘flaws’ that seem insignificant to others may be a sign. This hyper-focus on body image can create a negative cycle of insecurity and control attempts, further fuelling the disorder.

Change in Appearance

Changes in appearance are some of the most noticeable signs of an eating disorder. These can include dramatic weight loss or gain, or maintaining a significantly low weight despite eating amounts that would typically lead to weight gain. However, while these symptoms might suggest an eating disorder, they could also be caused by other factors. Consider contacting your teen’s pediatrician if you have concerns regarding a drastic change in appearance over a short amount of time.

Beyond weight changes, there can also be other physical signs such as dry skin, thinning hair, brittle nails, or a pale complexion. These signs often result from nutrient deficiencies due to restricted or unbalanced eating. Parents should note such changes and address them tactfully and compassionately.

Unusual Eating Habits

Unusual eating habits can also be an indication of an eating disorder. These habits could range from extreme dieting behaviors to episodes of binge eating. For instance, they might exclude entire food groups, consume foods in a certain order, or exhibit ritualistic behaviors around eating.

On the flip side, some teens may engage in excessive eating, even when not physically hungry. This behavior, often accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame, can be a sign of binge-eating disorder. For more insight into healthy habits and attitudes around food and health, check out our Parent’s Guide to Fitness. This guide can be a useful tool for parents discerning the differences between a healthy interest in fitness and diet, and potential warning signs of an eating disorder.

Frequent Weighing

An overemphasis on weight is another common sign of an eating disorder. Teens suffering from these disorders may weigh themselves several times a day and exhibit significant distress over even minor weight fluctuations. This obsession with weight often goes hand-in-hand with negative self-talk and heightened self-criticism.

Moreover, their self-worth may become intertwined with the number on the scale. This fixation can lead to severe anxiety and depressive symptoms, escalating the already critical situation.

Avoids Eating in Public

If you notice that your teen constantly avoids meals or situations where food is present, it could be a red flag. Teens suffering from an eating disorder might come up with varied excuses to avoid these situations or consume very little when they do participate. This avoidance could indicate a deep-seated discomfort related to food and eating.

In extreme cases, this avoidance could extend to not only public situations but also family meals. The fear of judgment or lack of control around food can lead to isolation and secretive behaviors, further escalating the eating disorder’s impact on their social and emotional well-being.

What Should You Do If Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder?

Some teens may find it hard to recognize their unhealthy behaviors, especially when those behaviors are tied to unhealthy belief systems about their sense of self or their relationship with food. For parents, it can help to start by educating yourself about what your child is facing, so you can come to them from a place of awareness and an understanding of these issues. Our Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders is a great place to start. Knowledge is a powerful tool; by understanding some of the intricacies of eating disorders, you’ll be better equipped to help your teen navigate this difficult journey.

As parents, we must continue to have open, non-judgmental conversations with our teens, expressing our concerns and assuring them of our unwavering support and love. Communication is the key to understanding our teens’ feelings and struggles. Remember, this conversation should be led with love, empathy, and patience. This might be a challenging discussion, and it’s okay to feel uneasy about it. Remember that seeking help and addressing these issues together is a powerful way to foster their well-being and growth.

Furthermore, seeking professional help from therapists or physicians specializing in eating disorders is highly recommended. They can offer a diagnosis, treatment plan, and valuable guidance for both you and your teen. While it can feel daunting to seek professional help, remember that these experts are equipped with the tools and understanding needed to assist your family through this difficult time. Medical professionals can provide much-needed support and help you all come to terms with the situation while mapping out the best recovery plan.

It’s crucial to remember that you’re not alone in this journey. Communities like ours exist to provide support and share resources. Alongside the issue of eating disorders, you might also wish to learn more about the potential influence of social media on your teen’s self-perception with our Parent’s Guide to Instagram. Or, perhaps, delve into related topics such as anxiety and depression with our Parent’s Guide to Depression & Anxiety.

As you navigate this path, remember that every conversation you have with your teen is a step forward. Even in the midst of challenges, by maintaining open lines of communication and expressing your love and concern, you can guide your teen toward a healthier relationship with food and body image. If you found this article helpful, consider checking out our Conversation Kits, which are video-based discussion starters on topics like mental health, dating, and social media. Together, we can guide our teens, one conversation at a time.

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