What Parents Need to Know about Teen Eating Disorders

by Polaris Teen Center | Nov 25, 2015 | Eating Disorders, Parenting Tips, Resources

Imagine for a moment, you’re an insecure teenager struggling to fit into the world and a parent tells you that you need to loose ten pounds. Afterwards, every time you look in the mirror you see your body as being ‘fat and ugly’. Suddenly you are obsessed with loosing weight and you will do whatever it takes to shed the pounds.

Goodbye to the days of enjoying food and hello to the agonizing condition known as body dysmorphia disorder (BDD) a syndrome that is characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with physical features that one believes are flawed.

Despite the fact that many teens suffer from eating disorders, body image issues, and numerous other related problems, these issues often go entirely unaddressed. But just because talking about the current eating disorder epidemic may be very difficult at times, that doesn’t mean that avoiding this discussion is the right thing to do. If you are a parent of a teenager who is currently suffering from an eating disorder, it is very important that you are proactive and help them in their pursuit of recovery.

For females between fifteen to twenty-four years old who suffer from anorexia nervosa, the mortality rate associated with the illness is twelve times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death (Sullivan, 1995).

Some of the health consequences in anorexia nervosa’s cycle of self-starvation, is the body being denied essential nutrients it needs to function normally it is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy, resulting in:

  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which mean that the heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower.
  • Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones.
  • Muscle loss and weakness.
  • Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure.
  • Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness.
  • Dry hair and skin; hair loss is common.
  • Growth of a downy layer of hair all over the body, in an effort to keep the body warm.

Teen eating disorders can be triggered by an incredibly wide variety of external factors. Even if your teen is able to present an image of self-confidence, that doesn’t mean that they are immune from ever experiencing eating disorders. As a parent, the most important things you can do are create a loving environment, be mindful of their well-being, and be willing to listen to them once they admit that something is wrong.

Quote from Marcela Rondani, Clinical Director at Polaris Teen Center – “There are many misconceptions in our society on what actually causes eating disorders. Adolescents who are engaging in behaviors such as restricting, binging or purging are actually suffering from other underlying psychological conditions.

“When I speak to someone whose child is struggling with an eating disorder,” Marcela explains. “I ask the parents not to focus so much on the food because the food is merely a symptom and instead, I suggest they have a conversation, asking their teen how they might be able to help them.”

Marcela goes on to explain that in today’s climate of dieting, exercise and being thin often parents don’t realize just how serious an eating disorder can be

Fortunately, the resources available for parents of teens with eating disorders have continued to expand over time. There are currently many different useful outlets to help teens with eating disorders, and treatment methodologies can often be customized in order to address specific circumstances. This article will briefly discuss the prevalence of eating disorders in teenagers and will also focus on how you can assist your teen in getting help that they deserve.

What are the most common eating disorders in teenagers?

Currently, there are many different eating disorders that are experienced by American teenagers (and adults). Most of these eating disorders are not mutually exclusive, meaning that your teen may be suffering from multiple different conditions at once. Teenagers will typically not develop an eating disorder overnight. Instead, their symptoms will begin gradually and eventually accumulate over time—this is one of the reasons that effectively diagnosing the presence of teenage eating disorders can be rather difficult.

Here are some of the most common eating disorders that are found in American teens:

  • Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by a fear of gaining weight, resistance from eating food, and an ongoing desire to be thin. Though your teenager may initially claim they are “dieting”, anorexia is something that can quickly develop and present a variety of different issues. Anorexia is most prevalent among teenage girls, though it can be experienced by anyone.
  • Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by individuals who frequently binge eat and then force themselves to vomit following a meal (purging). Because many individuals suffering from bulimia will eat normal meals with their family, this condition can be uniquely difficult to detect. The consequences of bulimia include various intestinal issues, other mental health conditions, the acidic breakdown of their teeth, and numerous others.
  • Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) is a psychological condition where individuals literally see a distorted image of their body when they look in the mirror. Individuals with BDD may be a healthy weight (or even underweight) and still sincerely believe that they are intensely overweight. Signs of BDD include obsessive preoccupation with their physical features, constantly talking about the need to lose weight, and numerous others.

In addition to the eating disorders mentioned above, there are numerous other eating disorders that frequently affect teenagers. These can include conditions such as pica disorder, rumination disorder, avoidant food intake disorder, and many others. As stated, the presence of these conditions will frequently overlap. Though there are some patterns where these eating disorders are present, each of these can be found in teenagers of all genders, races, socioeconomic situations, and lifestyles.

How do I know if my teenager has an eating disorder?

Knowing whether your teenager has an eating disorder can often be quite difficult. These disorders frequently exist along a spectrum—rather than a binary—meaning that you may have trouble drawing the line between healthy dieting and dangerous eating disorders. Additionally, if your teenager is significantly overweight, the weight loss that is associated with many of these disorders may be initially (and inadvertently) met with praise from their family and friends.

Despite the difficulties associated with identifying the presence of an eating disorder, there are still a few common signals that you can be actively monitoring for as a parent.

  1. Noticeable and sudden weight change
  2. Obsession with size and weight.
  3. Spending too much time in the bathroom after they eat.
  4. Compulsive exercise.
  5. Withdraw from social activities, including meals
  6. Counting or portioning food
  7. Depressed and lethargic
  8. Limiting themselves to healthy foods only
  9. Rituals around food

Very few parents imagine that their teenager is the one who is suffering from an eating disorder. Consequently, many of these conditions may persist for months or even years at a time before they are adequately addressed. However, because teenagers are statistically more likely to experience eating disorders than any other age group, it is very important that you are mindful of their well-being. Talking the time to talk to your teenager and make sure that everything is alright can be an important step in the right direction. 

What are some of the most common treatment options for teenager eating disorders?

Because eating disorders are present in such a wide variety of teens, there are naturally many different possible approaches to treatment. Typically, these treatment modalities are not mutually exclusive. The ideal treatment for your teenager may involve the combined use of multiple methods at once.

  • Residential Treatment Centers are the most intensive form of treatment, but are often necessary for teens who are severely suffering from an eating disorder. In a residential treatment center (RTC), your teen will be surrounded by licensed and trained professionals who can help make recovery their highest priority.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most popular forms of treatment in American psychology. It is particularly effective for addressing multiple issues at once. CBT seeks to develop long-term coping strategies in teenagers that not only helps them overcome their struggles in the status quo, but also prepares them to address future sources of conflict as they inevitably arise.
  • Group Therapy has been proven to be uniquely useful in the treatment of eating disorders in teens. By being surrounded by individuals who are experiencing something similar to them, teenagers feel less alienated and more connected to their peers. Additionally, having the support of other people in a group can be exceptionally useful.
  • Experiential Treatment is a relatively new form of treatment, but it is one that has proven to be quite beneficial. By instilling positive experiences—such as music, art, hiking, surfing, and numerous others—your teen can adjust their mindset and be better equipped to recover.

These are just a few of the ways that teenage eating disorders can be effectively addressed. The solution that makes the most sense for your teen will depend on their personal preferences and their unique situation.

Creating Results that Last

Ultimately, properly addressing the presence of eating disorders needs to be focused on one thing above all else: creating results that last. Being a parent of a teenager with an eating disorder can often be quite difficult. Even bringing up the presence of eating disorder can be a unique challenge of its own. However, there are currently more resources available than ever before. By taking the time to reach out to a qualified teen treatment center such as Polaris, you can connect your teenager with the resources they need to recover and help them live the life they’ve been wanting to live.

For additional tips please go to:

Polaris Teen Center | Website | + posts

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).