As the new year begins, people of all ages are making resolutions around losing weight. While getting fit can be fun and keeping one’s weight in check can be a good part of a healthy lifestyle, too much focus on weight loss is not healthy. Teenagers are an age group that are at risk for developing eating disorders.
Anyone can develop an eating disorder, but onset is more common in people aged 12 to 25. Kids younger than 12 who develop an eating disorder are especially concerning due to their smaller size and can quickly develop serious health issues if they avoid food.
For parents of teens and young adults, being aware of the risk factors and what to look out for can help.
Youth and young adults facing behavioral health challenges, such as anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders, have a higher risk for developing an eating disorder.
A person who feels pressure to be “perfect” or thinks there’s only one right way to do things, can also be at greater risk than someone who doesn’t feel this way.
Youth and young adults may also face increased risk if a family member has had an eating disorder or a history of depression, anxiety, or addiction. Having food allergies that require restricted eating can also be a factor, as can a family history of type 1 diabetes.
Finally, pressures from society to be thin and fit a very narrow standard of beauty also contribute to increased risk for teens.
What to Look For
A person with an eating disorder may try to disguise their weight loss by wearing loose, ill-fitting clothing. They may visit websites or participate in social media groups that describe how to hide their eating habits from others, also known as pro-ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-mia (pro-bulimia).
It’s also common for someone with an eating disorder to lie about whether they have eaten and what they eat. They may throw away food to make it look like they have been eating.
They may also feel shame, not wanting anyone to know of their struggle, which can make it very hard and confusing for a parent to address.
How You Can Help
If you suspect your child, or someone else that you care about, may have an eating disorder, here are a few tips on how to talk to your teen and seek help when you need it:
Educate yourself. Read and learn about eating disorders so you can help. Talk to a health care provider about why you feel concerned and do research on available treatment options and specialists near you. Also, find support for yourself, so you’re best equipped to help the person you care about get better.
Seek out help. One good place to begin educating yourself is the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which published a toolkit for parents to download. NEDA also has a helpline at 1-800-931-2237, a chat helpline, and a crisis text helpline where you can chat with a trained volunteer by texting “N.E.D.A” to 741741. Another excellent source of information is the Eating Disorders Resource Center. And the NAMI helpline is available from 10 am-6 pm Monday through Friday at 1-800-950-6264.
Be a role model. You can teach your child/teen to have a healthy relationship with eating and weight through your own actions. Don’t openly criticize yourself, constantly diet, or gossip about how much others eat or weigh.
Encourage your child/teen. You can help by encouraging your child/teen to develop a strong sense of self and take charge of their own self-care. This includes finding activities that help them develop as individuals, including intellectual, physical, and social pursuits.
Trust your instincts. This is especially true if you suspect your child/teen is hiding or lying about their eating or exercise habits. At the same time, be careful about the language you use when you speak to them about their struggle with food, exercise, their weight, and their health. Even if they deny that anything is wrong, by showing them you’re not judging them, you’ll give them the opportunity to talk about things when they’re ready.
Be patient. A person with an eating disorder is going through a very rough time, and their relationships with food, eating, and their weight likely developed over a period of time. Changing that — and being ready and willing to take positive steps forward — will also take time.
Amy Mock, LCMHC-S, CEDS, is a certified eating disorder specialist and the Medical Services Liaison at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare.