Date Updated: 05/24/2022

Eating disorders can take a devastating toll on teens. To help protect your child, understand the possible causes of teen eating disorders and know how to talk to your son or daughter about healthy-eating habits.

Why teens develop eating disorders

Eating disorders are serious conditions related to persistent eating behaviors that negatively impact health, emotions and the ability to function in important areas of life. The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

While the exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, certain factors might be involved, including:

  • Biology. People with first-degree relatives (siblings or parents) with an eating disorder may be more likely to develop an eating disorder, suggesting a possible genetic link.
  • Psychological and emotional issues. Psychological and emotional problems, such as depression or anxiety disorders, are closely linked with eating disorders.
  • Environmental. Modern Western culture emphasizes thinness.
  • Favorite activities. Participation in activities that value leanness, such as ballet, or sports in which scoring is partly subjective, such as skating, can play a role.

Early consequences of teen eating disorders

Signs and symptoms vary, depending on the type of eating disorder. Be alert for eating patterns and beliefs that might signal unhealthy behavior. Some red flags that might indicate an eating disorder include:

  • Extreme weight loss or not making expected developmental weight gain
  • Frequently skipping meals or refusing to eat
  • Excessive focus on food
  • Persistent worry or complaining about being fat
  • Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
  • Using laxatives, diuretics or enemas after eating when they're not needed
  • Forcing yourself to vomit or exercising too much to keep from gaining weight after bingeing
  • Repeated episodes of eating abnormally large amounts of food in one sitting
  • Expressing depression, disgust or guilt about eating habits

Prevention begins with open communication

Talk to your son or daughter about eating habits and body image. To get started:

  • Encourage healthy-eating habits. Discuss how diet can affect your health, appearance and energy level. Encourage your teen to eat when he or she is hungry. Eat together as a family.
  • Discuss media messages. Television programs, movies and social media can send the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Encourage your teen to question what he or she has seen or heard.
  • Promote a healthy body image. Talk to your teen about his or her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Don't make or allow hurtful nicknames, comments or jokes based on a person's physical characteristics, weight or body shape.
  • Foster self-esteem. Respect your teen's accomplishments, and support his or her goals. Listen when your teen speaks. Look for positive qualities in your teen, such as curiosity, generosity and a sense of humor. Remind your teen that your love and acceptance are unconditional — not based on his or her weight or appearance.
  • Share the dangers of dieting and emotional eating. Explain that dieting can compromise your teen's nutrition, growth and health, as well as lead to an eating disorder. Remind your teen that eating or controlling his or her diet isn't a healthy way to cope with emotions. Instead, encourage your teen to talk to loved ones, friends or a counselor about problems he or she might be facing.

Also, set a good example. If you're constantly dieting, using food to cope with your emotions or talking about losing weight, you might have a hard time encouraging your teen to eat a healthy diet or feel satisfied with his or her appearance. Instead, make conscious choices about your lifestyle and take pride in your body.

Seeking help for teen eating disorders

If you suspect that your teen has an eating disorder, talk to him or her in a loving and non-confrontational way. Also, schedule a checkup for your teen. The doctor can reinforce healthy messages and look for unusual changes in your teen's body mass index or weight percentiles. The doctor can also talk to your teen about his or her eating habits, exercise routine and body image. If necessary, he or she can refer your teen to a mental health provider.

If your teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder, treatment will likely involve a specific type of family therapy that helps you work with your child to improve his or her eating habits, reach a healthy weight, and manage other symptoms. Sometimes medication is prescribed to treat accompanying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. In severe cases, hospitalization might be needed.

Whatever the treatment plan, remember that early intervention can help speed recovery.

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