A woman sits alone on a chair in front of a window.

Identifying Signs of Eating Disorders in Teens

What can you say about eating disorders in your teenage children? In some ways, it seems so cruel to live in a society where food of every kind is abundant to the point of being excessive and then put hidden social pressures on young people to starve themselves.

As parents, it is our job, our duty to our children, to make sure that they aren’t pushing healthy habits, such as learning how to cherish and sculpt their soon-to-be-adult bodies, into the realm of self-destructive obsessions. Yet this is not an easy task. 

Much as we’d like to, we can’t just weld the door to their room shut and push healthy sandwiches through a slot at the bottom. Ultimately, as we have all heard, we can’t “make” them eat properly any more than we can “make” them turn down the volume on their music. We can extract sullen compliance while they are in our sight, but that quickly unravels once they are away from our hectoring presence.

Yet this is not the same as despairing over our kids dying their hair lime green or ordering a set of nunchucks which they are obviously going to hurt themselves with. As many parents have found out, eating disorders are life-and-death challenges. We cannot simply pretend that it is just a phase they are going through. Everyone eventually succumbs to a freshly-delivered pizza, or so we’d like to think.

That is one of the big traps inherent in eating disorders. Those who have them become very cunning and conspiratorial in the ways they elect to hide the problem. Knowing they might catch grief for NOT eating that pizza, they eat a slice, go to the bathroom, and out it comes. You have to be very smart about recognizing the early signs of eating disorders. 

It isn’t easy to detect the difference between being upset about something else and heading for a full-blown crisis, so you have to note the early signs and then redouble your vigilance without letting your child know you are watching them. The day will come when there is going to be a big fight over this, so you have to make sure you are on solid ground before bringing the matter up for discussion.

Start By Knowing What The Likely Harbingers Of Trouble Might Be

Becoming a picky eater is one symptom to watch for. This is particularly the case when they become picky about eating what used to be their favorites. A day or two might be okay but anything beyond that represents a shift in mental attitude, not a loss of appetite.

Conversely, a sudden meteoric rise in food intake can also be a sign to worry about. This is not about growing boys eating like horses all the time, but about kids who eat little or nothing for several meals and then go hog wild. This is followed by skipping more meals. This is a classic sign of bulimia, which can be even more dangerous than its sister, anorexia.

While anorexia causes one to fade away from starvation, bulimia compounds that problem by overstressing with calories and then purging the body in a very harmful manner such as via induced vomiting or wildly unnecessary use of laxatives. Sudden trips to the bathroom, particularly right after eating, can be an important harbinger to keep an eye on.

A woman looks hesitantly at a spoonful of food.

Although it is not always easy to separate weight consciousness from obsession in a teenage girl, it can also be an acute warning sign. Flippant comments such as “This is going straight to my thighs” are one thing. Breaking into tears after climbing onto the scale for the twelfth time today is another. The more time they spend on the scale, the more concerned you should be.

A collateral signal might be an unhealthy obsession with exercise, particularly exercises that burn calories but don’t do much else for the body. Toning the body with multiple exercises designed to work all the various parts of the body is good. Slavishly doing the same exercise over and over just to burn fat is more of a reason to be alert.

You can often tell when your pets aren’t doing well by the way that they look. The same thing applies to children with eating disorders. These create vitamin and protein deficiencies, which are reflected in skin problems, a noticeable decline in hair and nail quality, and even tooth decay and enamel erosion.

Prolonged eating disorders can trigger menstrual irregularities, kidney disease, osteoporosis, and even heart problems. In other words, even if the disease is “cured”, it can still create many health problems further down the road. This is why it is so important to stay on top of this and take action.

Eating disorders almost always require some form of professional assistance or intervention. Screaming at your kid isn’t going to get them to start eating regularly or address the hidden emotional issues that triggered the problem in the first place. You need the help of someone who has wide experience in dealing with these issues.

Often, the best solution is one of the nation’s many Residential Treatment Centers, such as Elevations RTC. These are not prisons or psych wards but holistic places where your children can heal and still keep up with their studies in a safe, welcoming, and familiar environment. A little time away from life’s many pressures can do wonders if it happens in the right place.