There are many threats to teen girls today. Unfortunately, one of the gravest threats is a quiet, creeping disorder that many parents may not notice until it’s too late.
Eating disorders are very common among teens. Statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders show 95 percent of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. Perhaps of more concern is the association’s finding that 50 percent of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 see themselves as fat, and 80 percent of 13-year-olds have attempted to lose weight.
This is not an isolated problem in the U.S. In fact, anorexia is the third most common chronic illness in adolescent females, and eating disorders in schools are almost as prevalent as alcohol and drug abuse: 9.8 percent of female students reported problems with alcohol, 8 percent had problems with drugs, and 7.8 percent had eating disorders.
In order to identify and prevent eating disorders, parents must first know how to recognize the behaviors in their daughter – and to understand the difference between wellness-focused behaviors and rituals that center around unhealthy ideas about food and body image.
Eating disorders involve more than just going on a diet to lose weight or trying to exercise every day. Teens with these conditions display extremes in eating behavior, such as a diet that never ends and gradually gets more restrictive, for example. Parents may notice a change in their child’s behaviors. A teen may suddenly stop spending time with friends because she thinks it’s more important to go running or might make excuses to avoid joining friends for activities she used to enjoy, like baking cookies before a slumber party or going out for pizza after a football game.
The most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. But teens may also engage in other other food-related dysfunctional behaviors, such as binge eating and food phobias.
People with anorexia have a real fear of weight gain and a distorted view of their body size and shape. As a result, they can’t maintain a normal body weight. Many restrict their food intake by dieting, fasting or excessive exercise, and others hardly eat at all — and the small amount of food they do eat becomes an obsession.
Bulimia is similar to anorexia. With bulimia, someone might binge eat and then try to compensate in extreme ways, such as forced vomiting, overdoses of laxatives or excessive exercise, to prevent weight gain. Over time, these steps can be dangerous — both physically and emotionally. Bulimics often have tooth damage from enamel loss; may suffer from ulcers and esophageal damage from the constant regurgitation of stomach acids; and may even show signs of starvation such as hair loss, because so little of the food they eat is absorbed to feed the body.
Eating disorders are frightening – and should be taken seriously. Teens with eating disorders usually need medical and psychological support to recover from the condition. There is no quick fix or cure for eating disorders – because eating disorders, at their root, have nothing to do with food. A reputable therapeutic program can help assess the primary cause of your teen’s eating disorder and help create a strategy for healing and recovery.
In addition, there are things parents can do at home to help. First, help your teen find a replacement for her obsessions with food, exercise and body image. Suggest new activities, such as art classes, volunteering, a church youth group or music. Help her find a new focus to distract from her unhealthy, disordered eating behaviors, excessive or ritualistic exercise habits or restrictive dieting. Teens struggling with eating disorders often are drawn to activities based on weight regulation and exercise, so help her to replace her former physically focused activities with more creative or service-oriented endeavors.
Make a plan for meal times, too. Young women with eating disorders may be very anxious and feel guilty for eating, so meal times require support and supervision. Try to model balanced meals and talk about food as nourishment rather than something more complicated. In addition, refrain from dieting or restricting your own intake, and surround your daughter with people who can share a healthy attitude about food.
Finally, give your teen some healthy control of her meals. Set aside time to shop for groceries and prepare food together. Learning how to cook provides another skill to enable independence and can help your teen rediscover how to enjoy food in a healthful way. Trying new recipes also helps increase the number of “safe foods” your daughter will eat and promotes more normalized eating.
To learn how Compass Rose Academy can help your teen – and your family – recover from an eating disorder, visit www.compassroseacademy.org.