Statistically, the teenage years are the time in people’s lives that they are most likely to suffer from an eating disorder. These years are characterized by a tremendous amount of change. As teenagers struggle to establish their sense of self and gain a positive identity, they are much more likely to take dramatic steps in order to manipulate their bodies.
Many teenagers who suffer from eating disorders do so privately. They will learn to become masters of concealing their habits in order to not be bothered by others. Though a substantial portion of teenagers are aware that their behavior is physically harming themselves, they will justify their actions by telling themselves it is “only temporary” or it is “totally under control”.
For parents of teenagers who have developed an eating disorder, one of the most difficult things about the road to recovery is recognition. Very few teenagers will openly tell their parents that something is drastically wrong. So instead of expecting your teenager to come to you, if you are a parent who has reason to believe your child is suffering from bulimia nervosa, it is important to keep an eye out for the common warning signs.
What is bulimia?
Bulimia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders amongst American teenagers. It is most widely characterized by both binging and purging.
Binging occurs when an individual eats an usually large amount of food. Purging occurs when they intentionally force themselves to get rid of the food. Though purging efforts are typically associated with self-induced vomiting, they can also occur through the use of excessive laxatives and other means.
Most individuals who engage in binging and purging do so because they are trying to lose weight. However, as you would probably assume, doing so can inflict a tremendous amount of damage to your body. Bulimia has been proven to cause damage to the digestive system, teeth, and mental state of being. Individuals who suffer from bulimia are more likely to also suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse disorder, and self-harm.
Bulimia is not a healthy weight loss method, and it should never be encouraged or ignored. Many eating disorders can take an extensive period of time to fully overcome. The sooner you begin the recovery process, the sooner your teenager can begin to heal.
Bulimia directly affects several different organs and important bodily functions. The first—and perhaps most obvious—sign of bulimic activity is that the individual who is suffering will begin to lose weight. Because their body is expelling their food before their body can digest it, energy is unable to be properly stored and distributed.
Bulimia can weaken an individual’s immune system and make them much more likely to be tired and sick. The acid that can be found in vomit will also cause their teeth to breakdown. As a parent, it is important to monitor for any of these sudden changes.
Emotional and Behavioral Changes
People who suffer from bulimia will also change the ways they behave. Irritability, low self-esteem, and depression are all frequently demonstrated by those who are actively suffering.
Other common changes include a sudden loss of appetite, a negative attitude towards food/eating, unexplained feelings of guilt/shame, withdrawing after meals, and numerous others. Though many of these symptoms are correlated with bulimia—and do not mean they are necessarily suffering—the correlations are rather strong.
Bulimia can also change the way teenagers socialize with those around them. People who are suffering will frequently make self-deprecating comments, compare themselves to others, demonstrate a sudden shyness, and will easily become irritated.
These changes in socialization are particularly pronounced right before, during, and right after meals. If you are a parent who thinks your teenager may be suffering from bulimia, dinner time is usually the best time for you to be quietly observing their behavior.
What can I do to help?
Bulimia is a condition that is indeed difficult to overcome. But there are multiple ways that parents can help.
- Confront your teenager with a loving, caring, and understanding approach
- Let them know that you are on their side and you want to help them get better
- Engage them in activities that can actively help build their self-esteem
- Help them have access to foods they can feel good about eating
- Reach out and find professional help—even if you have nothing but good intentions, this situation is something that may be beyond your ability to handle alone
One of the worst things a parent of a teenager who is suffering from bulimia can do is wait. You may be intimidated to intervene because you don’t want to embarrass them. But speaking up—and helping guide your child towards recovery—can make a world of difference for them.
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).