If you’re the parent of a teen, chances are you already have a multitude of concerns for your son or daughter. Are they making good decisions? Staying away from drugs? What about sex? What about college? The last thing you may want to consider is whether your son or daughter has an eating disorder. Nevertheless, if you have even the slightest inkling of concern in this area it is imperative that you take that concern seriously. Particularly with teens, eating disorders can have long-lasting social, psychological, physical and developmental consequences if left unaddressed, and can even be fatal. This article will explain what eating disorders are, how to tell if your teen has an eating disorder, and what counseling for teens with eating disorders looks like.
What Is An Eating Disorder?
Eating Disorders are characterized by extreme thoughts, behaviors, and emotions in relation to food and body size. These disorders are not fads or attempts to gain attention, but are serious mental illnesses that can have devastating effects on people’s lives. These disorders include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge-Eating Disorder.
Anorexia is primarily self-starvation. The defining feature of this disorder is a body-weight that is 15% or more below what would be expected considering a person’s height, age, body type, and activity level (American Psychological Association, 2000). Individuals with Anorexia are often extremely fearful of gaining weight, even if they are underweight. People with this disorder restrict how much and what types of food they eat, and if they eat more than they are comfortable with they may use techniques such as vomiting or excessive exercise to rid themselves of calories. Due to the combination of medical complications and suicide, Anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness (National Eating Disorders Association, n.d.). The average age of onset for Anorexia is 17 (NEDA, 2008).
Bulimia is characterized by repeated cycles of binge eating (eating much more than normal in a short period of time) followed by purging (behaviors designed to compensate for overeating). Common methods of purging include vomiting, laxative abuse, and diuretic abuse. In addition, individuals with Bulimia may fast, or over exercise, to compensate for a binge. People who suffer from Bulimia are often within a normal weight range and may experience frequent changes in their weight. Many people do not realize that medical complications caused by Bulimia can be fatal. The average age of diagnosis for Bulimia is in the teens and early 20s (NEDA, 2008).
Binge-Eating Disorder or Compulsive Overeating
Individuals with this disorder experience repeated episodes of binge eating. Unlike Bulimia, people with this disorder do not participate in compensatory behaviors, such as fasting, vomiting, or over exercising. It is common for clients with this disorder to be overweight (they can also be within a normal weight range) and to experience feelings of intense shame related to their over-eating. The average age of diagnosis for Binge-Eating Disorder is in the early 20s (National Association on Mental Illness, 2012).
How Can I tell if my Teen has an Eating Disorder?
Each category of eating disorder has a unique set of warning signs, many of which can be difficult to discern due to the secrecy and shame involved with these disorders. Here are some common signs to be aware of:
Warning Signs for Anorexia
- Extreme preoccupation with body size and weight
- Sudden weight loss or being severely underweight
- In females, amenorrhea, or loss of menstrual periods
- Suddenly becoming a very picky or rigid eater
- Refusal to eat in front of others
- Cooking food for others, but not eating it themselves
- Excessive exercising, vomiting, or other purging behaviors
Warning Signs for Bulimia
- Extreme preoccupation with body size and weight
- Being secretive about eating, not eating in front of others
- Vomiting, over-exercising or obsession with exercise, laxative abuse, or fasting
- Large amounts of food missing from the kitchen without explanation
- Tooth decay, and marks on fingers and hands from self-induced vomiting
- Frequent weight fluxuations
- Large amounts of food are eaten in a short period of time
- Uncontrolled and impulsive eating, even when not hungry
- Eating alone due to embarrassment or shame
- Weight gain
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or disgust after over-eating
What Does Counseling for Eating Disorders Look Like?
Counseling for teens with eating disorders often involves a multi-professional approach, meaning the therapist will ask the teen to meet regularly with a medical doctor and a dietitian, in addition to therapy sessions. This team-treatment is important for monitoring the client’s health and medical status, as well as for helping the client learn new skills and information regarding food and nutrition. Depending on the orientation of the therapist, counseling may include individual, family, or group sessions, or any combination of these three. In addition to addressing the client’s symptoms, therapy will seek to address the underlying issues that led to and are sustaining the disorder. Unfortunately, it is common for additional psychological problems, such as depression or anxiety, to co-occur with eating disorders. If this is the case, therapy should be directed at treating both disorders, with priority given to the most severe symptoms.
Christian Counseling for Teens with Eating Disorders
Christian counseling offers a unique perspective in the treatment of eating disorders and is particularly well equipped to deal with the issues of shame, fear and hopelessness that surround these experiences. If you are concerned that your teen may have an eating disorder, seek help now. Early diagnosis, treatment, and the prevention of escalating symptoms can help your son or daughter reach full recovery and prevent some of the damage that these disorders cause over time. A professional counselor will be able to help determine whether your child has an eating disorder, the severity of their symptoms, and the best course of action for treatment.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2012). Binge Eating Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Content/ContentGroups/Helpline1/Binge_Eating_Disorder.htm
National Eating Disorders Association. (2008). Common myths about eating disorders.
Retrieved from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/educator-toolkit
National Eating Disorders Association (n.d.). Anorexia Nervosa. Retrieved from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/anorexia-nervosa
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