Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that cause severe disruptions in a person’s eating habits. Teenagers who are obsessed with their body weight, shape, and food more generally may be struggling with disordered eating. This is not uncommon—especially today.
Historical studies show that one in five women, and one in seven men, will experience an eating disorder by age 40. What’s more, most of these eating disorders (95 percent) begin by age 25. And the prevalence of eating disorders in teenagers is only growing, according to new data from the CDC. Since the pandemic began in 2020, weekly emergency room visits for eating disorders have increased each year among teenage girls. The uptick in ER visits could be related to changes in daily routines, emotional distress, and reduced access to mental health care caused by the pandemic. No matter the cause, however, it also means that parents should be aware and concerned.
Eating disorders are dangerous because they can prevent people from getting the nutrition their body needs. Over time, disordered eating can lead to physical health issues like malnutrition, heart problems, chemical imbalances, and reduced bone density, to name a few. The effects of eating disorders can become life-threatening.
If your teenager is struggling with an eating disorder, or showing signs of disordered eating, do not hesitate to seek help. Parents can play a major role in helping their teen toward recovery. In this guide, we’ll provide key information about eating disorders in teens, and show you how to help a teenager with an eating disorder.
What are the Most Common Eating Disorders in Teenagers?
There are various types of eating disorders that can affect adolescents. These include:
- Anorexia Nervosa:
Anorexia is associated with an extreme fear of gaining weight. The most common form of anorexia happens when a person starves themselves, or severely limits what they eat, in order to control their weight. Even if they are at a healthy weight or underweight, those with anorexia struggle with a distorted body image and often see themselves as overweight.
- Bulimia Nervosa:
Bulimia is another common eating disorder among teens. It is characterized by severe binge eating and purging. A person with bulimia may also have distorted body image issues; however, rather than limiting their food intake, they will overeat to the point where they can then purge their food. Purging might involve throwing up on purpose (very common) or taking laxatives/diuretics. A person with bulimia may also exercise excessively or take weight loss pills. They often hide this from others.
- Binge Eating Disorder:
Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Rather than being focused on weight loss, however, those with binge eating disorder will overeat, uncontrollably. They may eat large amounts of food when they are upset, and even when they are not hungry. They may hide how much they eat. Unlike bulimia, those with binge eating disorder do not purge after eating.
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
People struggling with ARFID avoid and restrict their food intake, not because they are scared of weight gain, but because they are not interested in food. They may be turned off to smells, tastes, textures, and appearances of food, or worried that food will make them sick or choke. This disorder is most common in childhood, but can carry into the teen and adult years.
What are the Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder?
In order to help a teenager with an eating disorder, it is important to know what eating disorders look like. As described above, many eating disorders are not outwardly apparent (at least at first). Those with eating disorders will try to hide their food intake, avoidance, or purging. With that in mind, here are some signs that might indicate whether your teenager is struggling with an eating disorder:
- Changes in eating habits, including what, how often, and how much they eat.
- Unusual weight fluctuations (either weight loss or weight gain).
- Hiding food intake from others, such as refusing to eat with the family.
- Restricting or regimenting their food intake.
- Denying being hungry.
- Increased irritability or emotionality.
- Body weakness and dizziness (associated with lack of nutrients).
- Exercising much more than usual.
- Obsessing over their body image, or expressing unhappiness with their weight.
- Spending a lot of time in the bathroom, particularly after meals.
- Struggles with mental health, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for parents to miss the signs of an eating disorder—or any mental health disorder—in their teen, because teenagers often keep to themselves. Your teenager may not vocalize if they are feeling sad, anxious, self-conscious, or unhappy with their body. For this reason, it’s important to pay close attention to your teen’s behaviors and health.
Who is Most Vulnerable to Developing an Eating Disorder?
Anyone can develop an eating disorder. Those who struggle with their body image, weight, and shape are at the highest risk of developing an eating disorder. According to James Lock, MD, PhD, professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, certain activities can also be risk factors, such as ballet, gymnastics, wrestling, and modelling.
Adolescents who struggle with other mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, may be more prone to developing an eating disorder. In fact, eating disorders are often caused by anxieties, fear, or other negative emotions.
As a parent, it’s important to not blame yourself or your child for their eating disorder. Eating disorders are mental health disorders, and not intentional. Your child needs your help to overcome their disease. Parents can play an important role in this process.
How Can Parents Help a Teenager with an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders can be dangerous, and potentially fatal, so it is important to seek help for your teenager immediately. Eating disorders typically require professional intervention and support. If you are looking for ways to help a teen with an eating disorder, the best thing you can do is find an appropriate treatment program, where your teen will receive therapy and (if needed) medical support.
You may consider exploring treatment options together with your teen. You will want to choose an eating disorder treatment program that is specialized in helping teenagers and young adults. Equally important, you’ll want to choose a program that offers tailored, personalized treatment plans, and that is equipped to treat multiple mental health disorders. No single course of treatment will work for everyone, because everyone has different needs in treatment. Your teenager should receive treatment based on their personal needs, relating to their physical, mental, and emotional health.
Finding a treatment program is just the beginning of helping your teen with an eating disorder. Parents should know that entering treatment is not the end-all solution, and that further work is needed to support your teen. In fact, new research recognizes the importance of parents getting involved in their teen’s treatment. Family-based therapy and treatment programs are extremely beneficial for teens struggling with eating disorders.
In a treatment program where family therapy is offered, parents are given the opportunity to truly learn how to help their child overcome an eating disorder. Family therapy can offer parents the tools and tips needed to help their teen change their eating behaviors. This type of therapy can also help parents learn how to be supportive and instill confidence in their teenagers.
At home, parents can help their teens overcome disordered eating habits by:
- Eating/providing nutritious meals and maintaining a healthy exercise regime. This can set an example for your teen to do the same. Teach your teen about proper nourishment and fuel for the body, as well as the benefits of physical activity to stay strong and healthy (not lose weight).
- Encouraging intuitive eating. In addition to teaching your teen about healthy eating, talk to your teen about the importance of intuitive eating—or, listening to their body when it comes to food intake. Teach them how to eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are full.
- Fostering self-love and acceptance. Love your own body and do not talk about weight. Be an example and encourage your teen to love their body, too. Look for positive qualities for your teen and compliment them. Tell your teen how much you love and support who they are.
- Showing acceptance for all types of bodies, shapes, and sizes. Do not be critical of other people’s weight or size. Let your teen know that “thin” does not mean beautiful, despite what the media might show.
- Avoiding criticism and negative talk. Do not comment on your teenager’s weight or appearance. Instead, try complimenting your teen more often, and acknowledging their efforts to be healthy and happy. Similarly, do not make comments about certain foods that are “bad” or “good,” and instead talk about food as though it’s a balance. This will help your teen get a good balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and other nutrients (while allowing for fun snacks, too).
- Getting your teen involved in mealtime. Encourage your teen to help with planning family meals, going grocery shopping with you, and preparing food. Make these activities fun and educational. Be gradual, and do not force this, especially if your teen is uncomfortable around certain types of food.
If your teenager has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, or you suspect your child is struggling with one, the best thing you can do is be supportive and proactive. Be supportive by talking to your teen, encouraging positive eating habits and self-love, and getting involved in their recovery. Be proactive for your teen by finding them age-appropriate treatment for eating disorders, and taking steps to educate yourself about eating disorders in adolescents.
If you would like more guidance on how to help a teenager with an eating disorder, or if you would like to learn about our treatment programs for adolescents, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment provider, with inpatient and outpatient programs for teenagers struggling with eating disorders and other mental health issues. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.