Eating Disorders and Adolescents
When you think of eating disorders, who do you usually think of? Most people I know would say “teenage girls”. Of course, eating disorders affect people of all gender identities, and (almost) all ages. Not only do older adults struggle with disordered eating, but children are even developing eating disorders at younger and younger ages, some as young as about 8 years old. I’ve often had friends tell me that they’re surprised when I say I’ve worked with older adults struggling with an eating disorder. But, there is a reason we specifically think of teenagers when we think of eating disorders.
Adolescence and Mental Health
In general it’s common for those who struggle with mental health to start showing signs and symptoms during their teenage years. When we ask why, the research points to social, biological, and developmental changes. It’s no surprise that all of these simultaneous changes lead to increased stress levels, not to mention pressures that teens face from friends, family, and society in general. Furthermore, eating disorders are complicated because oftentimes behaviors associated with eating disorders are rewarded. Compliments surrounding weight loss, eating “healthy”, and exercising may seem harmless, but for some it serves as encouragement to engage in eating disorder behaviors. Eating disorder behaviors have become so normalized in society that people often don’t see it as a problem until it is severe.
Why do eating disorders develop during adolescence?
Teenagers are at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder during this time in their life for a few reasons:
- They may be uncomfortable with how their bodies are changing and want to prevent themselves from growing into an adult body
- They may be influenced by friends, family, coaches, peers, social media, etc. to achieve a certain body type, or they are ridiculed for their natural body
- They could struggle with perfectionism in other aspects of their lives, such as their grades. This perfectionism expands to their relationship with food as well as their body image
- They might have experienced some form of trauma and the eating disorder helps them cope
How is eating disorder treatment for adolescents different compared to adults?
Treating eating disorders in adolescents is different from adults because adolescents are still growing. Eating disorders can affect an adolescent’s bone density, stunt their growth, and even impact their brain development and cognitive development. If an eating disorder goes untreated, these issues can last into adulthood. Treating eating disorders earlier has better outcomes than treating them later in life. The longer a teen goes without treatment, the harder it is to dismantle/unlearn negative beliefs about food, their bodies, and their whole selves.
What can parents do about eating disorders in adolescents?
I know it can be scary as a parent if you think your child is developing an eating disorder. It’s natural to react with resistance and go into “fight mode” against the eating disorder. Some parents may want to take total control of their child’s food intake and behaviors. While this can be necessary for certain clients, it’s important to keep in mind that teenage clients especially are longing for a sense of control. While it may make sense to take over for your child to help mend their relationship with food, really look at the child and how this affects them. For some having no control at all over their food only fuels the eating disorder.
If you are the parent of a teen with an eating disorder, it’s important to make sure your teen has a treatment team of professionals who all specialize in eating disorders.
This team should consist of a therapist, a registered dietitian, a primary care physician, and possibly a psychiatrist. If your teen is open, consider attending a therapy session with them. Take this opportunity to learn more about what your teen is struggling with.
The goal is to build understanding and learn how to support them. Reflect on your own relationship with food and exercise. And finally, seek support for yourself. This may be through individual therapy, group therapy, etc.
If your child is struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, reach out and schedule an appointment with a therapist.