How to spot signs of an eating disorder in your teen
[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
Learn about the different types of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.
Your teen may be showing some subtle signs of an eating disorder. Here’s how to spot them.
Has your teen or young adult seemed especially insecure about their body image? Do they disappear after meals or try to avoid social plans that include food? Do they seem unnaturally focused on their body weight, are dieting or experiencing weight loss? If so, it’s possible they have an eating disorder. And if that’s the case, both you and your child will need a mental health professional and/or their pediatrician’s help to navigate through the medical complications of this potentially life-threatening condition.
The first week in February is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, so we’re shining a spotlight on some of the not-so-obvious warning signs of an eating disorder that parents might miss. Keep in mind that any of these warning signs — especially by themselves — may not mean anything alarming. But it’s a good idea to find a non-confrontational way to talk to your teen about the issues — especially if they are exhibiting two or more warning signs. You can learn a lot simply by observing their reaction to your questions.
Types of eating disorders
An eating disorder is a serious condition that disrupts your child’s life and affects their health in numerous ways, including kidney and heart issues, osteoporosis, hair loss, organ failure and even death. Eating disorders can involve a number of behaviors and eating patterns, ranging from severe overeating to self-imposed starvation.
The different types of eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa – a condition that causes your teen to severely restrict the amount of food they eat because they are convinced they’re too heavy, even when they’re dangerously underweight.
- Binge eating disorder – a condition that causes repeated episodes during which your child feels out of control as they eat large amounts of food in a short timeframe, even when they’re not hungry or already uncomfortably full.
- Bulimia nervosa – a condition that causes a repeating cycle in which your teen binge eats large amounts of food in a short amount of time and then purges themself in a variety of ways, including self-induced vomiting, excessive laxative or enema use, or misuse of diuretics to compensate.
- Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED) – a condition in which your teen doesn’t meet the strict criteria for anorexia or bulimia, but they have a significant disorder that is affecting their healthy eating and longevity.
Signs of eating disorders
People who have eating disorders in young adulthood can become very skilled at hiding their problem, so it may be difficult for you to recognize the signs in your teen. Some of the more obvious signs could include catching your child throwing up after meals or noticing they are eating little to no food and having difficulty maintaining a normal weight. Here are a few of the more subtle signs:
Your child may show signs of low self-esteem, and not be socializing with their loved ones or peers as often as they used to. In particular, they may not want to eat with other teenagers and will make excuses for why they would prefer to have meals and snacks in private.
2. Excessive exercise
Take a close look at how much your teen exercises now, versus how active they were a year or two ago. Has the amount significantly increased? Are they becoming obsessive about it, exercising even when they are injured, sick or tired? If so, it’s possible they are especially focused on their body shape and weight.
3. Secretive eating
Have you noticed large amounts of food mysteriously going missing? It’s possible that your teen is sneaking the food into their room so they can eat in private. Be aware, though, that many teenagers shut themselves in their room away from their family members, so don’t assume they are secretively eating just because they’re alone a lot.
4. Eating habits
Your child may be spending more time than usual cutting their food into small pieces, moving it around on their plate and using other strategies to make it appear as though they are eating more than they are.
5. Food restrictions
Some people who are struggling with an eating disorder believe that certain groups of food should be off-limits for them. Your teen may be preoccupied with counting fat grams and calories and refuse to eat certain types of food because they believe they are not healthy. They may also equate eating with self-control.
Eating disorder treatment options
Full recovery from disordered eating is possible — there’s no shame in needing help to achieve it. There are different types of care available. The treatment program your teen needs can depend on the stage of the eating disorder. They may need to stay at the hospital overnight for treatment (called inpatient care) or come in regularly for treatment (called outpatient care).
At Providence, we offer programs for both adolescents and adults. Patients work with one another, their family members and program staff to develop and practice coping skills while changing their eating behaviors. Treatment may involve:
- Ongoing physical assessments
- Ongoing psychiatric assessments and medication management
- Group, family and individual therapy
- Nutritional evaluation and nutritional counseling
- Therapeutic meal groups
- Future prevention planning
There are also programs available, at Providence and beyond, to help caregivers of young adults, including community forums to share feedback and experiences with others going through a similar situation.
If your teen has an eating disorder, they will need support and unconditional love from you, as well as access to proper treatment resources.
Find a doctor
If you are looking for a primary care doctor, or a doctor who can assist with an eating disorder, you can search for one that’s right for you in our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.