Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are among the most common psychiatric conditions. In fact, adolescent girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 17 are particularly at risk of developing one or more eating disorders while they are still in school. However, many people have misconceptions about adolescents with eating disorders. One thing is for certain – if a parent suspects their child has an eating disorder, it is important to find an eating disorder treatment program as soon as possible.
Adolescents with Eating Disorders: When Should Parents Worry?
With so many stereotypes shown on film, in the media and online, many parents think that teens with eating disorders look very frail or thin. But in reality, adolescents with an eating disorder often look no different than their peers. While each child is different and there is a great deal of variation from one type of adolescent eating disorder to another, there are a few key signs that parents and family members should look out for. In particular, it is important to keep an eye out for one or more common signs, including:
● Eating secretly or alone
● An obsession with exercise
● Avoiding social situations that involve eating in public or around others
● Secretly storing food
● Continually dieting, even if already slim or has met goal weight
● Overusing diet pills or laxatives
● Gaining and losing weight unexpectedly
● Wearing baggy clothing to hide body shape
● Using the bathroom directly after meals
In recent years, studies have shown that 5.4% of children aged 13 to 18 will develop anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder. In rough terms, that is about 2.2 million adolescents. Of those children, 3.8% will be female and 1.5% will be male.
Why Do Teens Develop Eating Disorders?
The development of eating disorders is rarely linked to an isolated event or situation but instead thought to develop due to a number of different factors. While teenage girls are more likely to develop common eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, young men are susceptible as well. So why do adolescents in particular struggle with these types of psychiatric conditions?
Medical professionals and researchers believe there are a few main factors that make them more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, including:
Trauma such as emotional abuse or neglect, physical abuse, parental divorce or sexual abuse may trigger and/or perpetuate an eating disorder.
While bullying is not a new concept by any means, in recent years there has been an increase in bullying. Social media and the internet have made it much easier to bully people anonymously. The emotional pain and torment that many adolescents receive in school and online can lead to a number of psychological presentations, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and dissatisfaction with one’s body or weight.
Weight shaming occurs when teens or adults describe others weights in order to put them down. If a child believes that they are overweight in the eyes of their peers, they may feel pressure to lose weight quickly to fit in with others.
For many teens, their school years are the time in their lives when they are most active. With team sports in school and out, as well as physical education, there is much pressure to perform well. The weight restrictions of certain sports like wrestling, ballet, and gymnastics can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
Common Eating Disorders Every Parent Should Be Aware Of
While most parents have heard teachers or doctors mention terms like anorexia nervosa or binge eating, they may not know much more about common eating disorders. Before a parent can find the best eating disorder treatment for their teen, they’ll need to have a better understanding of their condition.
This common eating disorder can affect people of all ages but is especially common with teens. Individuals with anorexia nervosa typically work to restrict their caloric intake and the types of food they eat to maintain or reach a goal weight. These individuals harbor a fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. In some cases, they may also turn to compulsive exercise, laxative use and restrictive eating habits to maintain their goal weight. It may be difficult to tell if someone is living with anorexia nervosa just by looking at them, as an individual does not need to appear emaciated or underweight to have the condition.
Some common signs of anorexia nervosa may include:
● Dramatic weight loss
● Development of food rituals (excessive chewing, eating food in certain orders, rearranging food on their plate, etc.)
● Concerns about eating in public
● An intense fear of gaining weight or looking “fat”
● Makes constant excuses to avoid mealtime
● Menstrual irregularities
● An obsession with caloric intake
Bulimia nervosa is also a very serious and potentially life-threatening eating disorder that affects people of all ages. It is characterized by a compulsive cycle of binge eating episodes and a number of compensatory behaviors like self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise and laxative use to maintain a goal weight.
Common warning signs of bulimia nervosa include:
● The development of food rituals (excessive chewing, not allowing foods to touch, eating only one type of food, etc.)
● Skipping meals or eating meals in their room
● Using the bathroom directly after meals
● Fear of eating in public or around others
● Hides food or hoards food in strange places
● An obsession with burning calories and exercise
● Extreme mood swings
● Dental issues like excessive cavities or discolored teeth (due to vomiting)
● Menstrual irregularities
Binge Eating Disorder
This common eating disorder is characterized by frequent episodes where an individual will consume abnormally large amounts of food very quickly and often to the point of physical discomfort. The binge eating episodes are often accompanied by feelings of shame, loss of control, guilt, and depression. With this type of eating disorder, people do not usually compensate for a large amount of food consumed by purging or other unhealthy measures.
Some common signs that a teen may have developed binge eating disorder include:
● Stealing or hiding food in unusual places
● Cutting out or limiting food groups that they previously enjoyed
● Secret recurring episodes of binge eating
● Lack of control over portion sizes and how quickly one eats
● Eating alone or fear of eating around others
● Making lifestyle changes to accommodate binge eating episodes
● Fluctuations in weight
● Stomach cramps or other gastrointestinal issues like acid reflux or constipation
Eating Disorder Treatment Options for Adolescents
Early eating disorder treatment is very important for adolescents, as they have a greater chance of making a full recovery before their symptoms worsen. Eating disorders are very serious health conditions that can cause lifelong complications. While parents may be tempted to jump online and search for “eating disorder treatment near me” at the first sign of an issue, it is best to approach the situation with all the facts in hand and a clear plan put in place.
Many individuals feel shame regarding their eating disorders and in some cases, can’t or won’t discuss the issue easily. Luckily, eating disorder counseling can help children to understand that there are issues with their relationship with food and help them to find the tools they need to make a full recovery. Adolescents may benefit from eating disorder counseling in an outpatient treatment program, day treatment program, or residential treatment with additional psychiatric care and inpatient treatment where they can receive both medical and psychiatric treatment.
Because every person is different, there are a variety of different eating disorder treatment options available today, including:
● Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
● Cognitive Remediation Therapy (CRT)
● Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
● Enhanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-E)
● Family-Based Treatment (FBT)
● Evidence-Based Treatment
● Experimental Therapies
Balancing Adolescent Eating Disorder Therapy and School/Work Life
One of the biggest obstacles that most teens come across on the road to recovery is how to balance their adolescent eating disorder therapy with their regular day-to-day life. This is especially true for adolescents who have recently completed an intensive residential or inpatient treatment program. It can be difficult to feel comfortable taking on a full class schedule once again or simply eating meals with their peers. One of the potential options to help reduce stress and give teens the best opportunity to succeed in this transition is to make sure that their school is aware of the condition – this should always be confirmed with the adolescent’s treatment team.
Additionally, parents should collaborate with their adolescent’s treatment team to discuss the option of letting their child ease back into classes at first. If possible, teens can return to school with a shortened schedule or start taking classes online. The same attention to detail should be paid when returning to sports or other social activities. Ongoing counseling sessions or flexible day treatment programs are also a great way to keep adolescents on track as they work to stay in recovery.
Additional Adolescent Eating Disorder Information
● 50% of teen girls and 33% of teen boys will engage in some form of unhealthy weight control behavior
● 70% of the people who have an eating disorder in the US will not seek treatment
● Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any currently identified mental illness
● Evidence shows that some eating disorders like bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder may have genetic risk factors
Where Can I Find Eating Disorder Treatment Near Me?
At Monte Nido, we have been working to help individuals overcome their eating disorder behaviors and develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies for more than two decades. With years of combined experience and a dedication to compassionate care, we identified a need for specialized adolescent eating disorder treatment to help teens develop their best eating habits and look forward to a bright future.
Founded by Carolyn Costin in 1996, Monte Nido and Clementine were designed to offer a treatment setting that is comfortable, home-like and tranquil. As someone who has recovered from her own eating disordered behaviors, Carolyn says, “One way to think about the process is to remind yourself that you are working toward something… and you are doing the best you can. This will involve having compassion – for yourself.”