Teenage Eating Disorders: What to Do If You Notice Your Teen Experimenting with Restrictive Eating Habits
After years of knowing your kids like the back of your hand, suddenly they’re picking at their favorite meal instead of eating it. Maybe you notice you’re throwing away more food than usual, or your teen’s comments have been dominated by self-deprecating topics of body image, weight, and food.
Could your teen have an eating disorder? Is there anything you can say that will actually make a difference?
The short answer is yes, there definitely is. While modern Western culture has been emphasizing thinness for years, and some activities (think ballet, theatre, etc.) subtly or not-so-subtly require it, you still have power to help them start on a better path.
Let’s talk about what to do if you notice your teen is experimenting with restrictive eating habits.
Talk About It
Talking about eating habits and body image is not as uncomfortable as you may think. Ask your teen what they think about the media in their life. Who do they look up to? What trends do they see? What do they think about those trends? Encourage them to question and critically think about the media they consume.
You can also promote healthy body image by normalizing different body shapes. Everyone looks different by nature, and part of growing up is learning how to embrace the body we were given.
Stay away from comments and jokes directed at their specific weight, body shape, and other physical features. What might seem like a two-second joke can become a negative mantra that replays in their head.
Cultivate Positive Self-Esteem
For a lot of people, losing or gaining weight is a huge personal goal. For people with disordered eating, it can be the only goal they’re focusing on, and the goal itself is likely unhealthy and unrealistic. Remind your teen of their accomplishments unrelated to their weight.
Try to catch these in the moment—if they say something funny, tell them how much you admire their wit. If they question something you never thought about, admit how smart they are for noticing. Boosting their self-esteem about parts of their personality that are unrelated to their body image can help them build holistic and healthy self-esteem.
Be Straight-Up: Teenage Eating Disorders are Dangerous
The mind of a teen can be a battle zone of social cues and expectations that are new or constantly changing as they get older. Navigating all these changes and maintaining healthy habits can be challenging. As the most consistent adult in their life, you have the experience and expertise they may be craving.
Remind them they’re still a teenager, and therefore they’re still growing. In order to be a healthy, productive adult, they need proper nutrients and caloric intake. There’s also a good chance their eating habits are tightly tied to emotional disturbance, so take opportunities to ask if something’s wrong when they start acting finicky about food.
Sometimes eating disorders are how your teen exhibits power and control, and it can be nice to know that sometimes, life will feel out of control. People will feel powerless. These kinds of feelings shouldn’t be buried, they should be dealt with and navigated through.
Set a Good Example
Think about the language you use around your family: do you constantly complain or make jokes about your body? Do you make comments on the food people choose to eat? Do you obsess over losing weight? Your teen looks to you as an example, whether they admit it or not. Be mindful of the behaviors you pass onto your children.
If you think your teen might have an eating disorder, address them in an empathetic way. Make it clear that your concerns come from a place of love and care.
Early intervention helps speed recovery, so consider scheduling an appointment with one of our counselors today and together, we can heal the root of the problem.