Raising teenage children to be confident and comfortable individuals may be a priority to most mothers. Teenagers need support in developing a positive self-image and healthy relationship with food. With the negative influences lurking in pop culture, social media, and consumer products, teens may be easily manipulated to believe that being thin is in. Unfortunately, teenage girls and boys may develop an Eating Disorder, lasting into adulthood and beyond, if not properly identified and treated. Mothers can identify the signs of an Eating Disorder in their teenage children by considering these suggestions.
Image is an issue
As a mother, you naturally notice things about your child that others do not. When you are trying to identify if your teenager has an Eating Disorder, you should tap into your strong observational skills. Start by tuning into your teenager’s self-image. Hang out with your teenager while they are getting ready to go out, to get a glimpse into their sense of self-image. While its normal for teens to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, try to pick up on subtle clues, that may indicate your teenager may feel unhappy with their body, like sucking in their belly or making self-destructive comments about their appearance. If you hear your teenager continually criticize their body and their weight, use it as an opportunity to talk. Constant scrutiny about one’s self may be a red flag about some deeper unsettled feelings about one’s self. Let your teenager know you are there to listen to anything that is bothering them, and ask how you can be of support.
Meal time tips
As you are trying to identify if your teenager has an Eating Disorder, pay attention to their habits when it comes to food. Note any strange behavior around mealtime.
Reflect on the following questions:
- How does your teenager fill their plate at mealtime?
- What do their portions look like?
- Has your teenager become more particular about his/her food choices?
- Does your teenager suddenly omit certain food groups?
- Does your teenager finish meals or have a lot left on their plate?
- After a meal, does your teenager sneak off to the bathroom, perhaps to self-induce vomiting?
- Have you ever heard your teenager vomit after mealtime?
- Do you suspect your teenager to be using laxatives, diuretics or diet pills?
- Has your teenager undergone recent weight loss?
- How often does your teenager skip family meals?
- What are some of the excuses your teenager uses to avoid sharing meals?
- Does your teenager prefer to eat alone?
- How does your teenager act before, during, and after family or social gatherings involving food?
- What signs of anxiety does your teenager show when it comes to food?
- Have you ever found food hidden in your teenager’s room?
- Do you notice empty food wrappers hidden in the garbage or in other unexpected places?
If your answers to these questions lead you to believe there may be a problem, contact a professional, like a doctor, therapist, dietitian or counselor, who has experience in treating teenagers with Eating Disorders.
Change in temperament
When teenagers struggle with an Eating Disorder, they can be secretive, irritable, and isolated. A teenager will go to extremes to hide an Eating Disorder from their parents, teachers, peers and other loved ones. For example, a binge eater may hide food in their room, lie about going to a friend’s house as they really plan on driving around to fast food joints to binge, or deny that empty food containers are theirs. A teenager with Anorexia Nervose may wear baggy clothes, masking their dramatic drop in weight. Without the nourishment from a proper diet, a teenager with an Eating Disorder often suffers signs of irritability, depression, and may display signs of preoccuation. Your teenager may not be able to handle the normal stress of schoolwork and tests, activities and friendships. A lack of calories and nutrients may impair your teenager’s immune system, leaving them to potentially become sick more often. If you notice that your teenager starts to skip out on their favorite activities, continually breaks plans with best friends, or avoids contact with family, they may be hiding an Eating Disorder. Teenagers tend to isolate themselves, indulging in their disorder, whether it be through starvation, binging, or purging.
If these signs sound familiar to you, it’s time to develop a plan. Approach your teenager without judgment or blame, letting them know how much you love them. Involve professional help. As a mother, you have to be your teenager’s advocate to offer support and empower change.
Jesse Viner, MD, Executive Medical Director of Yellowbrick, is a recognized expert in the treatment of eating disorders, difficulties resulting from trauma and abuse, and bipolar disorder, Dr. Viner has three decades of experience applying the knowledge of psychiatry and psychoanalysis to the challenge of creating meaningful and pragmatically effective treatment programs. Dr. Viner has served as Director of Adult Psychiatry Inpatient Services for Northwestern University Medical School; Medical Director of Four Winds Chicago and Director of University Behavioral Health. He is on the faculty of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and The Family Institute at Northwestern University. Dr. Viner is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.