Eating disorders can take a devastating toll on teens — especially girls. To help protect your child, understand the possible causes of teen eating disorders and know how to talk to your son or daughter about healthy-eating habits.
Why teens develop eating disorders
Eating disorders are serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively impact health, emotions and the ability to function in important areas of life. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. However, certain factors might put teens at risk of developing eating disorders, including:
- Societal pressure. Popular culture tends to place a premium on being thin. Even with a normal body weight, teens can easily develop the perception that they're fat. This can trigger an obsession with losing weight and dieting.
- Favorite activities. Participation in activities that value leanness — such as modeling and elite athletics — can increase the risk of teen eating disorders.
- Personal factors. Genetics or biological factors might make some teens more likely to develop eating disorders. Personality traits such as perfectionism, anxiety or rigidity also might play a role.
Early consequences of teen eating disorders
Signs and symptoms vary, depending on the type of eating disorder. Be alert for eating patterns and beliefs that might signal unhealthy behavior, as well as peer pressure that may trigger eating disorders. Some red flags that might indicate an eating disorder include:
- Skipping meals, making excuses for not eating or eating in secret
- Excessive focus on food
- Persistent worry or complaining about being fat
- Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
- Misusing laxatives, diuretics or enemas after eating
- Excessive exercise
- Regularly going to the bathroom right after eating or during meals
- Eating much more food in a meal or snack than is considered normal
- Expressing depression, disgust, shame or guilt about eating habits
Prevention begins with open communication
To help prevent teen eating disorders, talk to your son or daughter about eating habits and body image. It might not be easy, but it's important. To get started:
- Encourage healthy-eating habits. Talk to your teen about how diet can affect his or her health, appearance and energy level. Encourage your teen to eat when he or she is hungry. Make a habit of eating together as a family.
- Discuss media messages. Television programs, movies, websites and other media might send your teen the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Encourage your teen to talk about and question what he or she has seen or heard — especially from websites or other sources that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice, rather than an eating disorder.
- Promote a healthy body image. Talk to your teen about his or her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Don't allow hurtful nicknames or jokes based on a person's physical characteristics. Avoid making comments about another person based on his or her weight or body shape.
- Foster self-esteem. Respect your teen's accomplishments, and support his or her goals. Listen when your teen speaks. Look for positive qualities in your teen, such as curiosity, generosity and a sense of humor. Remind your teen that your love and acceptance is unconditional — not based on his or her weight or appearance.
- Share the dangers of dieting and emotional eating. Explain that dieting can compromise your teen's nutrition, growth and health, as well as lead to the development of binge eating over time. Remind your teen that eating or controlling his or her diet isn't a healthy way to cope with emotions. Instead, encourage your teen to talk to loved ones, friends or a counselor about problems he or she might be facing.
Also remember the importance of setting a good example yourself. If you're constantly dieting, using food to cope with your emotions or talking about losing weight, you might have a hard time encouraging your teen to eat a healthy diet or feel satisfied with his or her appearance. Instead, make conscious choices about your lifestyle and take pride in your body.
Teaming up with your teen's doctor
Your teen's doctor can reinforce the messages you're giving your teen at home, as well as help identify early signs of an eating disorder.
For example, the doctor can look for unusual changes in your teen's body mass index or weight percentiles during routine medical appointments. The doctor can talk to your teen about his or her eating habits, exercise routine and body image. If necessary, he or she can refer your teen to a mental health provider.
Seeking help for teen eating disorders
If you suspect that your teen has an eating disorder, talk to him or her. Encourage your teen to open up about his or her problems and concerns. Also schedule a medical checkup for your teen. The doctor can assess your teen's risk of an eating disorder, as well as order urine tests, blood tests or other tests to detect complications.
If your teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder, treatment will likely involve a specific type of family therapy that helps you work with your child to improve his or her eating habits, reach a healthy weight, and manage other symptoms. Sometimes medication is prescribed to treat accompanying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In severe cases, hospitalization might be needed.
Whatever the treatment plan, remember that early intervention can help speed recovery.