Eating disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in teenagers. The tremendous desire to fit in coupled with a need for validation and approval can cause many teens to become fixated on their appearance. In the era of Instagram models and influencers who are paid to be pretty, children are now being taught at a very early age that appearance matters most in the world.
Although females experience eating disorders more often, the disorders do not discriminate. Teen boys can also develop eating disorders, and they often face additional judgement and stigmas that prevent them from talking about their struggles and getting help. As a parent, it’s important to understand the types of eating disorders your teenager could develop and what signs to watch out for.
People with anorexia are often terrified of gaining weight. They also suffer from body dysmorphia, a psychological symptom that causes someone to focus intensely on their flaws both real and imagined.
Teens with anorexia will often be extremely concerned about their appearance, and they may frequently lament how they are “fat” or “ugly.” They may also find ways to avoid eating, hide food, or restrict their consumption to extremely small quantities or foods they consider “healthy.”
Another sign of anorexia and other eating disorders is excessive exercise. Rather than simply enjoying athletics, teens with anorexia feel like they have to exercise frequently to the point of exhaustion.
Unlike those with anorexia, people who experience bulimia will often have no problem eating around others. Some may engage in restrictive eating, such as fasting or only eating during certain times of day. Many will also only eat in secret. However, there are teens who can mask their condition by eating regular meals or even large quantities. Then, they will “cleanse” themselves by purging, the act of making oneself vomit. Some may use laxatives as an alternative or in conjunction with purging.
Signs of bulimia are similar to anorexia but also include gastrointestinal problems, discolored or scarred knuckles, and habitually going to the bathroom after eating.
Binge Eating Disorder
Teens with eating disorders are not always concerned about losing weight. Instead, some adolescents struggle with obesity as a result of their poor relationship with food. Binge eating is fueled by underlying emotional problems such as depression or anxiety. Food is a comfort on a neurological level. The brain’s reward system is triggered when people eat, which evolved as a survival instinct.
Despite the fact that food can be a positive element of many people’s lives, teens who struggle to control their eating may resort to eating in secret or hoarding food in their rooms while suffering with tremendous feelings of guilt and embarrassment.
How to Help Your Teen
If you’re worried that your teenager has an eating disorder, talking with them is the best first step. Although you may worry about making the situation worse, it can actually be a relief for someone to finally have a chance to talk about their problem. Even if your teen is resistant, it’s important to let them know you care and want them to be happy.
Never force your child to eat, restrict their access to food, or force them to do any behaviors relating to weight loss or gain. Instead, talk about the importance of their health and well-being before involving a licensed psychologist. They can also collaborate with your child’s doctor.
If your teen’s eating disorder has become particularly serious, your doctor or psychologist may recommend an inpatient treatment program. Inpatient eating disorder treatment programs can help address both the physical and psychological symptoms of the condition.
Above all, provide as much love and support as you possibly can. Eating disorders convince people they are unlovable as they are. As you navigate recovery together, the most important thing you can do is remind your child of their worth.