The National Institute of Mental Health states, "3 percent of teens are affected by an eating disorder but most do not receive treatment." Yet out of all the 30 million people who have an eating disorder in the United States, "95 percent of these individuals are people ages 12-25," according to information found on the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders (ANAD) website, which means that many of these cases are teenage patients. We can speculate on why teens are a high percentage of eating disorder cases, but the question remains: how do you know if your teen has an eating disorder?
I did not have an eating disorder as a teenager, but I had various "disordered eating" patterns starting at age 22 and ending at age 25, quite some time ago. I fell right into the above statistic and I am fortunate that I am recovered from an eating disorder. If your teen is overeating, binging, purging, starving her or himself, or obsessed with exercise or eating, you may have a teen who is in the potentially deadly hands of an eating disorder. We eat to live, and when food becomes such a contentious part of a person's existence, the results can be harrowing. Oftentimes, an eating disorder is not really about food but about:
- Low self-esteem
- Perhaps related to sports in which being "lean" is a priority
- Anxiety — obsessive compulsive behaviors
- Societal pressure: ANAD quotes, "47 percent of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures"
- Family issues
- And more
Now that we've discussed some of the causes, let's get into the signs and symptoms. It's not always as obvious as catching your teen vomiting after eating or finding her or him (yes, boys can have eating disorders as well) extremely gaunt. If you find your teen engaging in any of these behaviors or having any of these symptoms, it's time to find out how you can help your teen. Eating disorders are consuming; a large part of my time was spent worried about food, my weight, and my body image when I was overexercising, restricting my foods, and binging. It felt like hell to be chained to counting calories and was really simply compensation for other issues I had like anxiety and trauma.
Obsessed With Exercise
In today's day and age, it's nice to have a healthy teen who wants to get out and move, but if your teen is obsessing over his or her exercise routine and canceling social events, family time, or studying to strictly exercise, watch out. He or she may have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders don't start and end with anorexia, but oftentimes people will have both anorexia and bulimia. Even if a teen is not starving him or herself, binge eating is dangerous. I would often cycle between severe calorie restriction and binging.
Excessive Weight Loss
I was so proud to wear kids' clothing. It didn't look obvious to peers who didn't know me well because I am a small person and wearing kids' clothing is still my reality in my 30s, but I HAD to wear the smallest size possible. I couldn't weigh 100 lbs. Your tiny teen who has always been tiny or your teen who has suddenly become gaunt? They could both be restricting calories so much that they're not eating properly.
Eating Alone Without an Audience, or Exiting the Dinner Table
A teen who eats alone may be hiding her eating disorder. If she jumps up after she's done eating, she may be running to exercise, purge, or consume herself with guilt over eating.
Dieting is fine — severe diets are not! If your teen worries and frets over every morsel and beverage that he or she intakes, you've got trouble on your hands.
Irritability or depression can be part and parcel of the teen who is struggling with an eating disorder.
If you suspect your teen has an eating disorder, it's time to have a gentle and open talk with your teen and your teen's doctor. For a great list of resources and information, visit ANAD. Getting informed about what your teen is going through is the first step to helping your child get better.