How to Talk to Your Teen About an Eating Disorder

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How to Talk to Your Teen About an Eating Disorder

According to the University of Chicago, teens are the age group most at risk for eating disorders. While it’s not always easy to recognize disordered eating in young people who are undergoing many physical changes as part of normal growth and development, the first step in recognizing and treating eating disorders is informing yourself. Food Is Not The Enemy outlines what parents, teachers, and peers need to know.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are a group of mental illnesses that disturb a person’s eating behaviors and cause a preoccupation with food, exercise, and body weight or shape. There are four types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia is characterized by severe food restriction, extreme thinness, and an intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals with bulimia experience episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviors such as vomiting, use of laxatives, fasting, and excessive exercise. People with bulimia may not be underweight.
  • Binge Eating Disorder: In binge eating disorder, episodes of overeating are not followed by purging, typically leading a person to become overweight or obese.
  • Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED): Previously known as EDNOS, or eating disorder not otherwise specified, OSFED is a catch-all category that accounts for around 30 percent of eating disorder diagnoses. OSFED includes atypical forms of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, as well as other purging behaviors and night eating.

Why are eating disorders dangerous?

The National Eating Disorders Association outlines these health consequences of eating disorders:

  • Cardiovascular health: Eating disorders can lead to low heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and increased risk of heart failure.
  • Gastrointestinal health: Disordered eating affects digestion, leading to symptoms that may include stomach pain, constipation, and blocked intestines. Purging by vomiting deteriorates esophageal lining and causes sore throats. Malnutrition and purging may cause pancreatitis.
  • Neurological health: Eating disorders affect sleep quality, cause fatigue, and impair concentration. They might cause fainting or, in severe cases, seizures.
  • Endocrine health: Eating disorders affect hormonal balances, which may disrupt menstruation, cause bone loss, and contribute to insulin resistance.

In addition to these serious health consequences, teens with eating disorders are at an increased risk of suicide.

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

It’s not always apparent when a teen has developed an eating disorder. Adolescents may go to great lengths to hide eating behaviors from family and friends. Often, loved ones notice a teen disappearing after meals or pushing the food around instead of eating it before they notice physical changes related to the eating disorder. While it’s important to familiarize yourself with the signs of an eating disorder, don’t wait until you have proof to start a conversation. If you suspect your teen is struggling with disordered eating, the sooner you talk about it, the better.

How can I talk to my teen about an eating disorder?

Make sure you’re carving out time for your kids and make time to have important discussions about what’s going on in their lives. Talking to your teen about a suspected eating disorder isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary step for getting help.

Prepare your teen by saying you want to have a conversation, but nobody is in trouble. Frame the conversation in “I” statements, like “I notice you haven’t been eating as much,” or “I heard you vomiting after dinner last night.” Using “I” statements takes the focus off your teen’s weight or appearance and onto factual observations. Let your teen know you’re concerned, but be intentional about not shaming or placing blame — ask, don’t accuse.

Your child may deny having an eating disorder or respond with anger or tears. Remain compassionate and focus on how you can get help overcoming the behaviors you’ve noticed. Even if your teen isn’t ready to call it an eating disorder, you can still get help. Be open to different kinds of treatment, including mental health counseling and therapy, nutritional counseling, outpatient medical monitoring, inpatient treatment, and support groups.

Depending on the nature and severity of the eating disorder, treatment may involve significant lifestyle changes. At the very least, adequate treatment is a non-negotiable part of the treatment plan. If there are problems at school related to the eating disorder, you may need to consider other options.  For example, if your child is planning to attend college, you might want to consider an online program.  Participating in a certified online degree program allows your teen to continue with therapy and other treatment options while completing his or her education at a comfortable pace.

Eating disorders are a serious health concern and, left untreated, may lead to death. That’s why it’s so important to speak up if you think your child may have an eating disorder. After all, it’s better to be mistaken and have a healthy teen than to miss the opportunity to help a teen in need.

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