The teenage years are a particularly vulnerable time of life, and in their struggle to establish a sense of self-worth, teenagers are particularly at-risk of developing eating disorders. What remains difficult for their parents is that—unlike other psychological disorders whose presence may be more easily noticed—many parents may not even realize that their teenager is even having problems. It is not uncommon for teenagers to claim “I’m not hungry” or to experience intense waves of hunger; their bodies are, in fact, experiencing some of the most dramatic and permanent changes they will ever have to endure. But how can a parent know when the behavior of their child is more than just a change in appetite? What can be an ideal eating disorder treatment?
Many eating disorders are relatively easy to conceal. Teenagers suffering from anorexia nervosa can often go months or more continually skipping breakfast, throwing away their lunches at school, pushing their dinner around their plates without ever actually eating it, and remain unnoticed by even the most caring parents and friends. Similarly, those who suffer from bulimia nervosa will often eat normal—or even more than normal—amounts of food around other people, but then throw it all back up in private before their bodies have had the chance to metabolize it. Even as parents might notice that something might be wrong with their teenager, they remain in a tricky situation, burdened by the dissonance of simultaneously wanting to care and wanting to not pry.
Do I ask them what’s wrong? How do I bring “it” up? Is the way they’ve been acting abnormal and dangerous, or am I just being paranoid? It is certainly not easy to confront a struggling teenager, especially about the things that may bring them shame or embarrassment, however, turning a blind eye and hoping that whatever “it” is will miraculously resolve itself on its own is hardly a worthwhile or reliable solution.
The first thing a parent who is concerned that their child might have an eating disorder should do is carefully watch for the signs of an eating disorder. Unfortunately, many of these signs may take a substantial period to actually ever materialize, but what a parent should be looking for is behavior that is not just periodic or temporary, but systematic. If a teenager decides to skip one breakfast, this alone is unlikely to be indicative of a problem, but if a teenager suddenly and systematically begins to skip every—or even just most—breakfasts over a period of time, this could be a sign of a much grander situation. Similarly, for a teenager who spends a long period of time in the bathroom after one dinner, it seems it would be rather aggressive to immediately assume they are suffering from bulimia, but if they begin to do it systematically over time, this could mean they are, in fact, suffering.
Other signs to look for are sudden weight loss, increased fatigue, increased irritability, increased prone to other illnesses (because of a suddenly weakened immune system), and a systemic decrease in self-confidence. Studies show that up to 2% of young men and 4% of young women will experience an eating disorder at some point in their life, and—sadly—these numbers have been increasing over the past few decades (though this increase may be at least partially attributed to advancements in data collection techniques). Eating disorders are far from uncommon in teenagers, and they are, in fact, largely treatable; but treatment can only begin once the existence of the disorder is noticed.
For parents who are worried about their teenagers, there are a few things that can be done in order to assure they are healthy and safe. Talking to them about their days, creating a safe and comforting environment in which they can express themselves without the fear or judgement nor rejection, and keeping an abundant amount of healthy food available for them are all ways in which they can thrive without the direct confrontations that many parents are too scared to initiate. Furthermore, enabling a positive relationship between your teenager and an adult outside of your immediate family (coach, counselor, spiritual leader, etc.) can help create an environment in which they do not feel so alone or ashamed to talk about what they have been going through.
The best things a parent can do to help their potentially troubled teen are to educate themselves about the variety of eating disorders experienced by teenagers, continually offer unconditional love and support, watch for signs of long-term problems, and create an environment in which their teenagers can reach out for assistance if they need it. Every teenager has a lot on their plate, and the job of a parent is far from easy—but there are indeed solutions out there within reach.