Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that can affect people of any age, but they often first manifest during the teenage years. In fact, some research has shown they may be more common in adolescents than in adults. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.7% of U.S. teens have an eating disorder.
Early diagnosis and intervention is important, but how can parents tell if their son or daughter is suffering from an eating disorder? While the symptoms of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder vary, there are a few tell-tale symptoms that can clue parents into their teen’s eating habits and health.
Common signs of eating disorders in teens
You can begin to recognize eating disorders in teens, based on a few important signs.
Distorted body image
Listening to your teen’s self-talk can be a powerful indicator of their mental health. While it’s certainly common for teens to be preoccupied with their self-image, teens suffering from an eating disorder often experience low self-esteem and low self-confidence. They will also be obsessed with how they look, how much they weigh and how their clothes fit to an unhealthy degree–much more so than what might be normal for a teenager
Teens struggling with an eating disorder typically suffer from an irrational feeling of being “fat,” regardless of their actual bodyweight. Body dysmorphia will make them continue to believe they are severely overweight and they may alter their eating and exercise habits accordingly.
Obsession with weight
An obsession with weight often goes hand-in-hand with a distorted body image. Teens who spend a lot of time on the scale checking their weight could be suffering from an eating disorder. If weight checking becomes obsessive, time-consuming or occurs without a particular reason, it might be time to talk to your child about what could be going on.
Unusual eating habits
Teenagers may not always have the healthiest eating habits. But when teens begin regularly skipping meals, overeating or dramatically restricting themselves at mealtimes, this can be a sign of an eating disorder.
Of course, occasional changes in eating habits are normal, but it can be a sign of a more serious problem when these changes are dramatic or become consistent. Be mindful of your son’s or daughter’s eating habits, and note any abrupt changes or continued irregularities.
Unusual eating habits should also be viewed within the context of other signs of an eating disorder in teenagers. If your teen has expressed a fear of gaining weight, a distaste for their body image or an increased interest in exercising, their eating habits may be another sign that they are struggling with an eating disorder.
Increased focus on exercise
Research has shown between 40% and 80% of anorexia nervosa patients compulsively exercise in order to avoid weight gain. In addition, approximately 90-95% of college students struggling with a diagnosed eating disorder are members of a fitness facility. Watch your teen’s exercise habits and make sure they don’t become excessive.
Rapid or extreme weight loss
Rapid weight loss is a sign of any number of serious medical conditions, but when coupled with any of the previous signs, it could also be a strong indication of an eating disorder. Any extreme changes in weight should be reported immediately to your child’s primary care provider.
When to be concerned
Any of these symptoms on their own are certainly concerning. When they overlap, they can be a clear sign of a much larger problem, such as bulimia or anorexia.
Teenage years can be a challenging time. It’s vital for parents to keep an eye on their teen and practice open communication. Look and listen for any abrupt changes in mood or behavior, such as the ones listed above, as these can be signs of eating disorders or related mental health issues.
There can be many causes of eating disorders and these conditions can lead to long term health effects–even death in severe cases. It’s important to seek professional help when an eating disorder is suspected.
Seeking treatment for teenage eating disorders
If you believe your son or daughter is struggling with an eating disorder, consider finding them help through a safe environment that promotes treatment and recovery. Seeds of Hope offers individual and group therapy sessions to help teens recover. Get help for your teenager by reaching out at 610-644-6464.
Do you suspect an eating disorder in your teen? Take our assessment.