Too often, families dismiss changes in their teen’s eating habits as “normal adolescent behavior,” however experts warn that this may not be true. Eating disorders are never “normal,” and with vigilance parents can help stop a downward spiral before it begins.
The Family Institute at Northwestern University says that, “Nearly 3% of teenagers between the ages of 13-18 — boys as well as girls — struggle with food, weight and body image issues severe enough to constitute an eating disorder. Such disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating) seriously affect both physical and mental health, and in some instances can be life-threatening.”
It can be challenging to know when unhealthy eating, obsession with weight and appearance, and smoking, for instance, are “normal” teenage activities or indicators of a potential problem.
Warning signs may include:
Excessive exercise: Although of course physical activity is usually healthy, excessive and rigorous physical activity, especially along with changes in eating habits, may cause more harm than good.
Dietary changes: Obsession with and focus on particular food groups (restrictive or excessive) in an effort to control weight or appearance may be of concern.
Sudden or excessive weight gain or loss: When a teen is more fixated on the scale than health, there is reason for concern.
Abnormal bathroom trips: Frequent or extended trips to the bathroom may indicate the binging/purging of bulimia or laxative use.
Avoidance of group meals: When you notice that your child no longer participates in family meals or friends’ gatherings, they could be avoiding food and fearful of detection.
If social isolation, reduced energy or mood swings accompany any of these behaviors, it is time to seek help.
Especially vulnerable to eating disorders are those young people who feel separate or different from others. LGBQT, differently-abled, and children from other cultures may be more at risk. In addition, athletes and performers whose physical appearance is important to them may resort to an eating disorder to stay in control.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that parents do what they can to prevent teen eating disorders by encouraging healthy eating, supporting self-esteem, and conversing openly about body image and media messages. Set an example for your child; encouraging open communication and support will go a long way toward preventing eating disorders.
However, when you are concerned about your child’s well-being, do not hesitate to seek outside help. It is better to get support when needed than wait until an issue becomes severe.