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Does my teen have an eating disorder? Knowing the warning signs

During teen years, appearance is everything. For teenagers in particular, having nice skin, hair, nails, and being a certain shape are all important contributors to how teens look and feel. Sometimes, teens desperate to look or feel a certain size or shape will take drastic measures with their eating habits to achieve this. Dr. Laura Grubb, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, answers some common questions about eating disorders and how parents can help their struggling teen.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are mental health disorders that make people go to extremes when it comes to eating. This includes restricted eating or anorexia; binge eating followed by overcompensation (purging or over-exercising) known as bulimia; and binge eating or uncontrolled over-eating. Eating disorders often develop during teenage years and can cause long-lasting physical and mental health problems if left untreated. 

What causes eating disorders in teens?

Pre-teens, teens, and adolescents are already vulnerable to developing mental health disorders with all of the changes in hormones and/or pressures of school and extracurricular activities.
Eating disorders are complex, as they are products of a psychological condition that cause harmful physical symptoms. There can be more than one causes of an eating disorder including family history or genetics, behavioral, or social factors like trauma, peer pressure, or bullying. 

What are some warning signs of teens with eating disorders?

There are some “red flags” that parents need to look out for, as they may indicate your teen has an eating disorder. Some symptoms include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Being hyper-focused or “obsessed” with food
  • A lot of discussion about feeling/looking fat
  • Rushing to the bathroom immediately following meals
  • Excessive exercising
  • Over-eating at meal times
  • Expressing shame or feeling “disgusted” about eating
  • Restrictive diets (vegan, gluten free, paleo, raw)
  • Food disappearing from the house

Can eating disorders be prevented?

Openly communicating with your child or teen can be beneficial in the long-run and may prevent eating disorders. Try some of the following:

  • Teach healthy eating habits
  • Encourage body-positivity, explain that their unique body is beautiful the way it is
  • Practice what you preach! Be a good example for your child by making conscious healthy choices for yourself.
  • Support your child to boost their self-esteem
  • Be honest about the dangers of unhealthy dieting/weight-loss tactics
  • Don’t use food as a reward or punishment

How can I help my teen if I suspect they have an eating disorder?

Contact your child’s pediatrician right away if you suspect they are suffering with an eating disorder. They can help direct you to helpful resources including, mental health specialists, and nutritionists and provide care for physical symptoms before they get out of hand. 

www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline

www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders/index.shtml 

Need a pediatrician? Visit Tufts Children'sHospital.org/Pediatrics to find a doctor today.