Eating Disorders and Teenagers
In my practice, Texoma Specialty Counseling, in Sherman, TX I see a lot of teens and young adults with eating disorders. This is not because eating disorders affect only young people, in fact eating disorders do not discriminate against age, race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or socio-economic status. I have seen adults develop eating disorders later in life.
However, I see a lot of young people because cultural health expectations influence the younger generations ideals about body shape, size, health, self-worth and happiness.
Culture influences a lot of teens to lose weight and to look a certain way. Studies show that 62.3% of teenage girls and 28.8% of teenage boys are trying to lose weight and 68.4% of girls and 51% of boys engage in exercise behaviors in an attempt to lose weight or avoid gaining weight.
What is more concerning is that over half of teen girls and one-third of teen boys are using unhealthy weight control measures to lose weight.
This involves things like restricting meals, fasting, smoking, purging, using laxatives or weight loss pills. Teens bodies are growing and changing and dieting can negatively impact their bodies ability to grow and mature. Check out the National Eating Disorder Association for more statistics about eating disorders.
What makes these statistics even more alarming is that eating disorders can hide in plain sight because the behaviors can be masked by cultural “health” standards. It is important we pay attention to young people’s behaviors and notice the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder.
Recognizing some of the early signs and risk factors for an eating disorder can help save a young person’s life. These include the following and ways to help those who may be struggling:
Low self-esteem. A young person that makes negative comments about their body is at risk for developing an eating disorder. How does the teen talk about their body? Do they comment about their body size? A teen at risk for an eating disorder will often avoid accepting compliments and is very self-critical and harsh with self.
Rather than compliment your teen on their body and appearance, offer your teen specific and direct feedback. For example, say something like, “Hey Jane I saw how hard you worked on that math assignment. You were very focused and spent a good bit of time trying to get all the answers right”. This shows the teen you see them and is a great way to validate your teen.
Focus on “healthy” eating and dieting. Does your teen use an app to track meals and count calories? Teens may count the number of food items on their plate. You see your teen eat, but you notice skipped meals or not finishing all of their meals. Your teen may go to school with a lunch you prepared, and bring most of it home. Teens and young people may follow weight loss, diet, and health sites.
Encourage that all foods are OK and allow your teen a variety of foods. Help your young person delete and unfollow weight loss, diet, and wellness sites that promote weight loss, “healthy” eating, dieting, and exercise.
Your teen has a hard time eating in front of others and may want to eat alone. Often times there is fear that others are judging what the teen is eating or there is concern that someone will comment on their food. This makes it hard to feel comfortable eating with others.
Let your teen know it is OK to eat with you and that you will not comment on food, bodies, or what others are eating. Be careful not to put too much pressure on the young person to eat, but let them know that health means nourishing the body and as a young person with a growing body their nutrition needs means they need to eat. Your support is to encourage them it is OK to eat the food they are being served.
Your teen tells you they are “fine” yet you see your teen sad, lonely, overwhelmed, and stressed.
Trust your gut instinct and if you feel like something is wrong, pay attention to that, because you are most likely correct.
A desire to lose weight. This can present in very subtle and less obvious ways. Your teen may be body checking. You may notice your teen having a hard time getting ready and overly focusing on appearance. Other types of body checking are weighing self daily or several times a day, changes in weight cause emotional upset and distress, pinching areas of body, or looking in mirrors and other reflective surfaces to check their body has not changed. Your teen may also use body avoidance behaviors such as lack of care about appearance and attempts to keep their body covered. This also looks like avoiding looking in mirrors or wearing baggy clothes.
Encourage health at every size. Teens bodies are constantly changing and growing and bodies can be healthy at any size. Focus on what your teen does and not on what your teen looks like.
If you notice any of these express your concern with compassion and try to listen to what the young person tells you.
Point out the specific behaviors you observe and state why it concerns you, then let the young person know that you want to help them seek help.
Eating disorders are about coping and dealing with emotional upset and when you communicate your desire to see the young person get help let them know you want them to get help to learn to feel better.
About the Author: Stephanie Waitt
Dr. Stephanie Waitt resides in Sherman, TX.
Stephanie is a therapist that specializes in treating eating disorders and is a body image, self-esteem, and eating disorder recovery coach. She works with young adults and teens to recover from disordered eating and find confidence and happiness. Stephanie is dedicated to helping individuals receive access to eating disorder treatment. She believes that everyone deserves quality and specialized treatment.
She is passionate about eating disorder awareness, dogs, and Wonder Woman. You can find her spending time with her husband visiting comic book stores or a craft brewery, and hanging out with her beloved Golden Retriever Prince Fenway and Corgi Lord Odin.
You can learn more about Stephanie at www.texomaspecialtycounseling.com.