Eating disorders can be a serious problem for teenagers. Eating disorders can have both short and long-term health consequences and can be deadly if not noticed and treated in time. And yet, a part of the reality of eating disorders is that sufferers often go to great lengths to hide whether they eat, how much they eat, how and when they exercise, and other actions that they take to control their weight.
What causes eating disorders? What are the risk factors and signs that parents and others should look for? What are the consequences of untreated eating disorders? What prevention strategies can parents take to protect their teens from developing an eating disorder in the first place? Take a look at what you need to know.
Risk Factors for Teen Eating Disorders
As is the case with many different types of disorders and diseases, it’s nearly impossible to predict ahead of time who will end up suffering and who will never have a problem. However, there are some factors that make eating disorders more likely, and considering these factors will help parents know what to look out for when it comes to the possibility of their teens developing eating disorders.
One thing to look out for is social pressure to be thin. While this pressure varies from place to place and even person to person, in general society places a lot of importance on being thin, especially for girls, and athletic, especially for boys. Being overweight, while relatively common in this society, is seen as unhealthy and even disgusting, and weighing too much is often associated with unrelated traits like laziness and slovenliness.
This is something that many teens follow closely – often centers celebrities who are thin, fashionable, and conventionally attractive. Seeing this can inspire even a teen who is at a normal, healthy weight to feel fat and motivate them to try to lose weight, sometimes in unhealthy ways.
The activities that your child participates in may also affect your teen’s self-image and impact the way they choose to eat. Athletics, from basketball to cheerleading, require certain body types and may cause participants to go to extremes to maintain a certain weight in order to continue competing. Other activities, such as pageants and modeling, often actively encourage unhealthy eating and unrealistic body types.
Finally, some personality types may simply be more prone to developing eating disorders. People who have eating disorders are often perfectionists who have little patience for anything they see as a weakness or shortfall on their own part. People who have high anxiety or who tend to be extremely rigid in their thinking may also be more likely to develop eating disorders.
Consequences of Eating Disorders
There are a number of different eating disorders out there, and they don’t all look the same. Someone who is suffering from anorexia won’t exhibit all the same symptoms as someone who is suffering from bulimia, for example. But they may face some of the same consequences because of their different eating disorders.
For example, a person with an eating disorder may struggle with excessive, obsessive thoughts about food, disrupting their ability to concentrate on other things. They may worry compulsively about being too fat or looking the wrong way. They may go out of their way to eat, exercise, or weigh themselves in secret, to avoid drawing attention to their eating disorder from friends and family.
They may also feel depressed or anxious about their eating and exercise habits. This can manifest in feelings of guilt, shame, and disgust.
If someone you know has an eating disorder, you may notice that they skip meals or often eat alone. You may notice that they complain about being fat and frequently check in the mirror for flaws. You may notice missing laxatives, enemas, or diuretics that the person with the eating disorder uses to control their weight. You may also notice that they regularly go straight to the bathroom after a meal or even during meals.
Preventing Eating Disorders
It may be impossible to prevent some of the factors that lead to eating disorders, but there are some things that you can do to help protect your teen. Start by setting a good example. If you’re constantly on a diet, making disparaging remarks about your own weight, or just not keeping up with a healthy diet, you may want to look at how you can change your own habits to reflect healthy habits and good self-esteem.
Help your teen build a good self-image and confidence about their body. Stress the importance of having a healthy body that can do the things that your teen needs to do, not just a body that’s conventionally attractive or meets an arbitrary standard. Talk about the importance of nutrition and fitness, not just thinness.
Make sure to focus on building your teen’s self-esteem. That means more than just complimenting their looks. Take an interest in their activities and interests and praise their accomplishments and resourcefulness. Being a well-rounded person is about much more than numbers on a scale or being able to fit in certain clothes, and you will want to stress that to your teenager.
It’s also important to talk about the dangers of diet culture, faddish eating habits, unsafe exercise habits, and other common components of eating disorders. Remind your teen that if they feel that losing weight is a priority, you can help them find a safe and healthy way to reach their goals.
You may also want to bring your teenager’s doctor into the conversation. They can help you talk to your teen about healthy eating habits and exercise habits, self-esteem, and positive ways that your teen can set and work toward goals they might have for their own bodies.
If your teen is showing signs that they may have an eating disorder, their doctor can also refer you to a mental health provider that can help your teen manage their thoughts and emotions surrounding food and eating.