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Mental illness in Children

Teen Eating Disorders: What Parents Can Do to Help

Research consistently shows that parents are concerned about bullying, substance abuse, and sexual behaviour among their children. But one of the most significant teenage risk factors might be one you never consider: eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. Most people with eating disorders first develop symptoms in adolescence. These disorders carry a higher fatality rate than any other mental illness, and can destroy your child’s health before you even notice the problem. Here’s what parents need to know about teens with eating disorders, and what they can do to help.

Teen Eating Disorders: Know the Warning Signs

Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, so knowing your teen and understanding what’s normal for her is vital to detecting symptoms before it’s too late. Some warning signs of eating disorders include:

  • Disappearing after each meal.
  • Unexplained tooth decay that may be due to vomiting food after a meal.
  • Sudden excess growth of body hair.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Changes in skin texture or appearance.
  • Looking pale or weak.
  • Low self-esteem or depression.
  • Anxiety or controlling behaviour surrounding food; your teen might refuse to eat in certain circumstances, or get defensive when you ask innocuous questions about what she wants to eat.

Why Teens Develop Eating Disorders

Between 90%-95% of people with eating disorders are women, though eating disorders are becoming more common among young men. The reason for this is fairly simple: teens, especially girls, face enormous pressure to conform to an unreasonable standard of beauty that demands thinness. In the face of this pressure, some teens suffer a loss of self-esteem that causes them to take serious risks with their health and eating habits.

Some teens are more likely to develop eating disorders than others. Some risk factors include:

  • A history of sexual abuse.
  • Controlling parents.
  • Obsessive or perfectionistic tendencies.
  • Participating in sports that demand thinness, such as ballet, gymnastics, wrestling, or swimming.
  • Suffering a recent trauma.
  • A history of depression or self-esteem problems.
  • A family history of eating disorders.

Of course, some teens develop eating disorders even though they have no risk factors, and others avoid disordered eating in spite of a range of risk factors.

What Parents Can Do

If your child has an eating disorder, your first inclination might be to get angry and even punish her. But attempting to control your child can actually make symptoms worse, since eating disorders are often about control and anxiety. Instead, talk to your child about her body image and ask what you can do to help. Counselling is of paramount importance. Don’t ignore the role your child’s psychology plays in her disordered eating, even if she promises to change or insists she’ll stop. Eating disorders are a lot like addictions; they happen for a reason, and counselling can help you and your child uncover the reason.

At Three Seas, we partner with parents and their children to get to the heart of disordered eating. We can help you find ways to support your child as we work with your child to improve self-esteem and cultivate a lifetime of healthy eating.