As teens mature, they become more aware of their bodies and how others view them. During these formative years, many teens begin attaching their self-worth to the size and shape of their bodies, and give significance to how other teens react to their size, weight, or physical appearance. This causes many teens, particularly teen girls, to become hypercritical of their physical appearance and burdened with thoughts that they may be too fat. Striving to be healthy through a balanced diet and exercise are great habits to instill in your teen as they grow and become more aware of their bodies. However, far too many teens today suffer from eating disorders that diminish both their physical and mental health.
As a parent of a teen, it is important to understand eating disorders, know what symptoms to look for in your own teenager, and learn how to help if your teen is suffering.
The Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Teenagers
According to National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, over 30 million people suffer from some form of an eating disorder. Additionally, three percent of adolescents develop eating disorders. Eating disorders most commonly develop from ages 12-20, and once established can persist over a person’s adult lifetime as well.
The Three Most Common Types of Eating Disorders
Eating disorders can present in a myriad of ways, so it is important to understand the most common types of eating disorders, and the damages each can do to your teen’s body and mind.
The National Eating Disorders Organization outlines the three most common types of eating disorders as: Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, and Binge Eating.
1. Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia is a condition of self-starvation, and deprivation of food. Without eating properly, the body becomes deprived of nutrients needed for survival and forces the body to slow down vital functions. Anorexia is the leading cause of death for women 12-25.
Bulimia is the systematic habit of binging and eating in excess, and then purging that food by vomiting or other means (ie excessive exercise). Bulimia can lead to severe chemical imbalances in the body and damage the digestive tract as well as diminish the function of other vital organs.
3. Binge Eating Disorder
Binge Eating Disorder is a condition marked by frequently eating large amounts of food, and can rapidly lead to health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Eating Disorder Symptoms to Look Out for as a Parent
As the parent of a teenager, it is important to be aware of what indicators or symptoms your teen might exhibit if he or she is suffering from an eating disorder. The symptoms can vary depending on the type of disorder, but the Mayo Clinic identifies these symptoms in correlation to the three most common types:
• Distorted body image
• Intense fear of weight gain
• Abnormally low body weight (though teens with normal or above average weights can also suffer from disorders)
• Going to the bathroom immediately after eating a meal
• Vomiting after eating meals
• Excessive calorie counting or exercise
• Use of laxatives or diet pills
• Eating very quickly or in excess
• Eating alone or in hiding
How to Help Your Teen if You Suspect an Eating Disorder
If you suspect that your teenager is suffering from an eating disorder, then it is important for their health and safety to intervene and help them. Because eating disorders are often coupled with shame, fear, or depression, your teen may not actively seek help from anyone. If you notice any concerning symptoms, you should speak to your teen. Be loving, supportive, and talk about your concerns in terms of their health, not how they look or how much they weigh. It may also be a good idea to examine your own relationship with food, and make sure you are promoting healthy living for both yourself and your family members.
Eating disorders often develop during adolescence, but can last into adulthood if they are not treated and managed effectively as soon as possible. If your teen is exhibiting symptoms of an eating disorder that continue even after you’ve begun attempts to help, then it is highly recommended that you seek the help of a therapist or doctor who specializes in teen eating disorders. They can help you and your family forge a path to a long, healthy, happy life that is not controlled by food or eating disorders.