By: Cassie Finegan, MFTC
Eating disorders are serious mental and physical illnesses that are treatable by various methods. Yet, they are not exclusive to any one group of people, they affect people of all ages, genders, body shapes, weights, ethnicities, and sexual orientations with onset most common around the ages of 12-18. So, the question many parents of adolescents want to know is how to detect the warning signs of a developing eating disorder in their teenage child. Following are the signs your teen is developing an eating disorder.
While symptoms and warning signs are different for each eating disorder, there are some overarching symptoms that apply generally to all eating disorder subtypes. Preoccupation with body image, weight, dieting, food, and calories is a major indicator of developing an eating disorder.
Often, this preoccupation is paired with withdrawal from social groups and peers in teens, as their avoidance of food and mealtimes, and increased time spent engaging in compensatory behaviors or avoidant strategies is prioritized. As this preoccupation increases, teens will often disengage with their previously typical activities, hobbies, and pastimes which may isolate them from their friends.
It is often said that eating disorders thrive in isolation, so being mindful of your teen’s changes in peer relations and time spent socially as it cooccurs with other eating disorder symptoms may be very important to your teen’s ongoing progression of their eating disorder. As teenagers often spend most of their social time with their friends and peers while in middle school and high school, their friends may be a reliable source for changes in their behaviors around food and mealtime.
While teens tend to skip breakfast, and fewer meals are shared with family members at dinner time, teens are provided a set time to each day in school to eat lunch surrounded by their peers. Therefore, their peers may be best positioned to notice any change in their eating patterns. Signs your teen is developing an eating disorder include physical and social changes.
As teenagers change their eating habits and engage in dieting or control of their food intake, they may experience sudden fluctuations in their weight, trouble sleeping, muscle weakness, and increased dizziness, especially when standing. Girls will often experience menstrual irregularities as well, including missing periods and/or having a period while on hormonal contraceptives.
Specifically related to eating disorders that involve voluntary vomiting, your teens may experience cuts/calluses along the tops of their fingers, dental challenges including cavities, enamel erosion, and tooth sensitivity, discoloration of the teeth; and swelling around the jaw and throat. For those struggling with intensive restrictive patterns, parents may notice their teens have exceptionally dry hair and skin, brittle nails, and at times loss of hair that is proceeded by lanugo, or extremely fine hair on the body.
When teens develop an eating disorder, they often begin to engage in what’s called ‘body checking’ which includes frequent and repetitive checking in the mirror for body fluctuations or perceived imperfections. Teens with Anorexia Nervosa will often significantly increase their time spent engaging in compensatory behaviors such as exercising excessively despite fatigue, illness, or previous social engagements which can increase social isolation.
Parents of teens with developing Bulimia Nervosa and/or Binge-eating disorder will often notice large portions of food going missing, their teen hoarding large quantities of food, and frequent trips to the bathroom when engaged in self-induced vomiting. Teens will often begin to engage in the consumption of large amounts of water or other non-caloric beverages, and excessive use of gum and mints as a way to both suppress appetite and mask the smell of vomit.
Approaching Your Teenager
If you’re concerned with your teen’s well-being or worried, they may be developing an eating disorder, these warning signs are a great place to start. In general, if you notice that your teen is preoccupied with their weight and physical appearance, and spend increasing amounts of time talking about food, fitness, calories, etc., and overly associate their self-image with their physical appearance, they may be at risk for developing an eating disorder.
When this is the case, it’s a good idea to have your teen assessed by their doctor who can then refer them for further assessment and appropriate treatment. When approaching the subject with your teen it will be important to let them know you are there to listen and support them. Counseling may be essential when treating a teen’s eating disorder as it will allow them space to discuss their body image and the social pressures, they may be experiencing that contribute to their eating disorder.