Helping Your Teen Through an Eating Disorder
It’s probably not new news to you that at some point, all teens will struggle with insecurity or low self-esteem at varying levels. For many, this struggle stems from a poor body image and feelings that some part of them is less physically attractive than that of their peers. One reaction to these feelings may be to develop eating disorders.
What is an Eating Disorder?
Eating disorders are much more than just a set of unhealthy dietary habits, or skipping a meal every now and then. They stem from deep-seeded insecurities and emotional issues that lead to an all-consuming lifestyle of controlling weight and image. The two most common eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia. A person who is anorexic will starve themselves and use other methods to lose weight, never believing they are skinny enough. A person with bulimia goes through a vicious cycle of binge eating and then purging by vomiting, taking laxatives, etc. A common misconception is that only teen girls struggle with eating disorders. But in fact, many males struggle with eating disorders as well.
Symptoms of Eating Disorders
An eating disorder will never develop overnight. No teen wakes up one morning and thinks “I think I’m going to become anorexic or bulimic today.” It may begin with a skipped meal here or there, or an increasing need to work out more than normal. But here are a few signs that your teen may have crossed the line, or be close to crossing the line:
- Frequent negative self-talk about body image or weight. They may try to pass this off as “joking” or sarcasm, but the more frequent it becomes, the more seriously it should be taken.
- False perception of body or weight
- Barely touching a meal or skipping meals consistently
- Disappearing immediately after eating
- Frequently complaining of stomach problems or feeling sick—this may be an excuse to continue purging
- Drastic changes in weight (both up and down)
- Cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints (from sticking finger down throat to cause vomiting)
- Depression or irritability
- Obsession with working out or exercising (intense need to exercise more than once a day or several hours a day)
How do I help my teen if I notice these signs?
First and foremost, do not ignore the problem. This is not “just a phase,” but a dangerous sickness that could create permanent physical and emotional problems for your teen. The National Eating Disorder Information Center gives a wealth of helpful information on ways to address an eating disorder with your child. Here are a few tips they suggest:
- Make the conversation about their feelings and relationships, not about their weight. Tell them how it makes you feel to see them unhappy and ask what you can to do help.
- Do not make it sound like an easy problem to fix. For someone who has never struggled with an eating disorder, it may seem like a simple solution—“Just eat!” or “Just stop purging!” But for the person struggling, there is no quick and easy fix and saying these things will only make them feel more hopeless.
- Look closely at your own attitudes about food and weight. Share struggles you have had with body image with your child to help them see they are not alone.
- Boost your child’s self-esteem by encouraging them to get involved with athletics, praising them for academic success, or whatever else you can think of. A high self-esteem is one of the best cures for an eating disorder.
- Do not blame yourself. It is not your fault that your child is struggling with an eating disorder, but it is your responsibility to help them work through it. Breaking down emotionally and blaming yourself will cause much more harm than good.