Helping your teen through their eating disorder
Helping Your Teen Through an Eating Disorder
It’s probably not new news to you that at some point, most teens will struggle with insecurity or low self-esteem at varying levels. For many, this struggle stems from a poor body image and feel that some part of them is less physically attractive than that of their peers. One reaction to these feelings may be to develop disordered eating habits, which may lead to a diagnosable eating disorder.
What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are much more than just a set of unhealthy dietary habits or skipping a meal every now and then. They stem from deep-seated insecurities and emotional issues that lead to an all-consuming lifestyle where one obsesses about food, weight, and/or one’s body. Common eating disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder. A person who has anorexia nervosa will starve themselves and use other methods to lose weight, never believing they are thin enough. A person with bulimia nervosa goes through vicious cycle of binge eating (consuming a large quantity of food) and then compensating by vomiting, taking laxatives/diet pills, fasting, and/or compulsively exercising. Additionally, a person with binge eating disorder will have recurrent episodes of binge eating without compensating. A common misconception is that only thin white teen girls struggle with eating disorders. But in fact, eating disorders do not discriminate. Individuals of all ages, genders, sizes, and racial and ethnic backgrounds struggle with eating disorders.
Symptoms of Eating Disorders
An eating disorder will never develop overnight. No teen wakes up one morning and thinks “I think I’m going to develop an eating disorder today.” It often begins with a skipped meal here or there, going on a diet to “get healthy,” or an increasing need to work out more than normal. But here are a few signs that your teen may have crossed the line, or be close to crossing the line:
- Frequent negative self-talk about body image or weight. They may try to pass this off as “joking” or sarcasm, but the more frequent it becomes, the more seriously it should be taken.
- False perception of body or weight
- Barely touching a meal, taking small bites, moving food around on the plate, and/or skipping meals consistently
- Rigid food rules or rituals
- Disappearing immediately after eating
- Eating larger amounts of food or more frequently than their peers on a consistent basis
- Frequently complaining of stomach problems or feeling sick—this may be an excuse to continue purging
- Stealing or hoarding food
- Changes in weight (weight gain or loss)
- Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints (from sticking a finger down throat to cause vomiting)
- Avoiding eating with the family or in social situations
- Depression, anxiety, or irritability
- Obsession with working out or exercising (intense need to exercise more than once a day or several hours a day; unwilling to take rest days)
How do I help my teen if I notice these signs?
First and foremost, do not ignore the problem. This is not “just a phase,” but a dangerous sickness that could create permanent physical and emotional problems for your teen. The National Eating Disorder Information Center gives a wealth of helpful information on ways to address an eating disorder with your child. Here are a few tips they suggest:
- Make the conversation about their feelings and relationships, not about their weight. Tell them how it makes you feel to see them unhappy and ask what you can to do help.
- Remember, most people with eating disorders initially deny or do not believe their behaviors are problematic. If you believe they are, encourage them to get a formal therapeutic assessment done, “just to be sure.”
- Do not make it sound like an easy problem to fix. For someone who has never struggled with an eating disorder, it may seem like a simple solution — “Just eat!” or “Just stop eating!” But for the person struggling, there is no quick and easy fix and saying these things will only make them feel more hopeless.
- Look closely at your own attitudes about food and weight. Share struggles you have had with body image with your child to help them see they are not alone.
- Boost your child’s self-esteem by encouraging them to get involved with social groups and build or deepen their friendships, praising them for their hard work (regardless of outcome), and acknowledging and encouraging their unique talents and gifts (e.g., creativity, compassion, problem-solving skills, spiritual convictions).
- Do not blame yourself. It is not your fault that your child is struggling with an eating disorder, but it is your responsibility to help them work through it. Breaking down emotionally and blaming yourself will cause much more harm than good.
- Call and schedule an initial appointment with a trained eating disorder therapist.