Eating disorders are some of the deadliest mental illnesses, and many teens struggle daily with this issue. However, they often go unnoticed and undetected because of the silence and secrecy surrounding them. Eating disorders can be associated with a lot of shame, and those affected are typically very good at hiding it—even from those closest to them.
Because of this, it’s important to be able to recognize the early signs of eating disorders and know how to help your teen when you suspect that something is wrong. One of the hallmarks of an eating disorder is shame. When a person gets into an eating disorder, they start to have unhealthy thoughts and believe that they’re bad, unwanted, fat, ugly, worthless, and all-around terrible. This couldn’t be further from the truth, but the first thing that will help you help your loved one is to understand how they are feeling.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. Hypersensitivity and Perfectionistic Tendencies
When your teen is struggling with an eating disorder, you may notice that they’re more sensitive to comments or criticism, and they tend to develop perfectionistic tendencies. It might feel like you’re walking on eggshells around them—you could say the same thing on two different days and get two completely different reactions. It can feel a little like an emotional rollercoaster, so if you notice that your teen is acting this way, you’ll want to dig a little deeper and see what the issue is.
2. Heightened Awareness of Food or Obsession Over Food
Another early sign of an eating disorder is a new obsession over food. You might notice that your teen is more concerned with reading labels, counting calories, becoming pickier, trying out new diets, or suddenly placing dietary restrictions on themselves by going vegan or vegetarian. These aren’t always bad things, but you’ll want to watch for them if you suspect that your teen is developing an eating disorder.
3. Withdrawing From Family, Friends, or Hobbies
As mentioned earlier, eating disorders thrive in secrecy and solitude. Teens who develop eating disorders will often withdraw from friends and family as well as activities that they would typically enjoy. Heightened anxiety around food and social events is a huge reason teens with eating disorders tend to isolate themselves. It is easier for them to have control over their food habits when they are alone.
HOW TO HELP
1. Find the Deeper Issue
Eating disorders typically don’t happen overnight. There are multiple reasons teens develop this type of mental illness, and it’s important as a parent that you dig deep and really try to understand your child. Instead of trying to fix the problem right off the bat, understand that they are in a vulnerable state. They’re worried about what people think of them, they’re afraid of being judged, and they feel broken. Letting them know that you’re there to understand and help will go a long way.
2. Don’t Focus on Body Talk
Saying things about their body (positive or negative) can be harmful when your teen is dealing with an eating disorder. Avoid talking negatively because they’ll think that their body is a problem that needs to be fixed. On the other hand, saying things like “you look so healthy” can make them think they look fat, or “you look great” can make them think that they should continue with their eating habits. Body talk is usually very triggering for someone with an eating disorder, so focus on complimenting all of the other wonderful things about your teen.
3. See Them As More Than Their Eating Disorder and Encourage Them to Get Help
The most important thing you can do is realize that your teen is not their eating disorder, and they can overcome it. When you really understand where they’re coming from, they will feel comfortable talking to you about it and you can help them get help through therapy and treatment.
To learn more, listen to our Not by Chance Podcast episode “Eating Disorders and Early Intervention,” where we sat down with eating disorder expert Mike Gurr and discussed the topic in-depth. You can find us on Apple Podcast or Spotify.