My Teen is Eating Weirdly: When to Worry and How to Prevent It*

Your 14-year-old daughter is pushing food around her plate. She says she’s not hungry at dinner time. She’s showing a sudden interest in joining a gym.

Is this normal teen behaviour? Or the start of something serious? Should you ignore it or freak out? If early intervention predicts best outcomes (which it does) when do you reach for the phone?

Parents — particularly mothers — are on high alert for eating disorders, partly due to the deluge of negative publicity, partly due to our own insecurities around food and our bodies. Many of us know all too well the dark places this obsessional thinking can take us. We DO NOT want our daughters lurching from diet to diet or to inherit our hang-ups.

We know society, the media and social media, bombards young women with messages that value “thin” and shame “fat”. We don’t want our daughters buying into this, consigned to a lifetime of body hatred.

So we watch them.

We’re aware that wanting to look attractive, wear the right clothes, fit in with their peers, is a normal part of growing up. But how do we know when it’s all going crazy?

Specialists agree it’s impossible to predict potential candidates for eating disorders, because — while anxiety is always a player — cause is due to a constellation of factors.

Research has shown links with control, perfectionism, seeking approval/love or protection, wanting to excel, identity issues. Sometimes roots lie in a chaotic early environment; sometimes not. Triggers can range from an Instagram post, to teasing or a critical remark by a coach or teacher, to a sudden self-consciousness of physical maturation.

While family therapy is reported to have the best treatment outcomes, this doesn’t mean the family of an eating disordered person is dysfunctional. It just means that — like any mental illness — context is important. The home environment, and having everyone working in the same direction, matters.

Having someone with an eating disorder in the home can be a frightening, and life-altering, experience for families so it’s important to act as early as possible, without panicking.

Early Warning Signs may include:

  • An exaggerated preoccupation with body or food.
  • Sudden changes in eating behaviours (e.g. deliberately skipping meals, not wanting to eat with the family, immediately heading to the bathroom after meals)
  • Increase in checking behaviours (weighing, measurement, looking in the mirror)
  • Eating/exercise begins to impact involvement in other normally enjoyed activities or relationships.
  • Eating/exercise is prioritised over everything else.
  • Social withdrawal (could have other causes such as depression, drugs)
  • Intermittent or ceased menstruation (when has previously been regular)

Obviously prevention is the best “cure”, but parents can’t control all the influences in their teens’ world, and must not not blame themselves when a child begins to show signs of disordered eating.

Here are some tips for developing and fostering a healthy body image:

  • Lead by example. Model healthy behaviours and watch the way you speak about eating and your own body. Your teen will absorb what she sees and hears.
  • Explain body changes during puberty. Explain that weight gain is a normal part of her development and maturation
  • Talk about media messages. Counter messsages that only a certain body type is acceptable and that being “hot” or “skinny” is most important. Notice what your teen is reading or watching and encourage them to discuss and question.
  • Monitor Internet use. Check out your teen’s use of social networking sites, particularly around body image. Talk about what they are posting and viewing.
  • Discuss self-image. Provide reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Ask your teen what she likes about herself and say what you like about her, too. Your acceptance helps build self-esteem and resilience.
  • Use positive language. Speak about food and exercise in positive ways. Discourage family and friends from using hurtful nicknames and joking about people who are overweight.
  • Establish healthy eating and physical activity habits. Help build knowledge about healthy food types and quantities.
  • Talk up strengths. Help her discover what she’s good at; expose her to women who are famous for their achievements , rather than their looks.
  • Praise achievements. Value what she does, rather than what she looks like. Look for opportunities to praise effort, skill, personality and achievements.
  • Encourage positive friendships. Friends who accept your teen for who she is can be a healthy influence.
  • Watch Embrace together. This excellent body image documentary by Australian Taryn Brumfitt promotes body acceptance against the societal tide that says we should look a certain way.

Finally, remember that many teenagers exhibit these kinds of symptoms — it doesn’t mean you are on your way to a full blown eating disorder. If you are worried, seek professional advice and/or an assessment. Putting your hand up early gives you the best chance of a good outcome.

*While this post focuses on eating disorders as predominantly affecting girls and young women, it is acknowledged males struggle with eating disorders too.

If you or someone you know are suffering from an eating disorder, seek help at 0800 2 EDANZ or (09) 5222679 or ed.org.nz.


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