The incidence of eating disorders among teens is rapidly increasing, and the dangerous and harmful effects of suffering from these problems are among the most significant risks our teens face. In the past few columns, I have identified the various forms eating disorders take, the data in regards to them and some of the factors which are the root causes for developing such a devastating problem. In this article, I will focus on how to recognize the problem in your teen, the signs/symptoms and where to turn for assistance.
Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms
The most obvious and primary symptom teens will initially exhibit is obsessive concern with their weight and food intake, and great attention to weight loss, dieting and excessive control of what foods they will eat. They will begin to eliminate foods they are willing to eat, be uncomfortable eating around others, will skip meals, will eat very little of what is offered to them and will be clued in to all the dieting fads, often experimenting with one after another. They may become obsessed with the health value of various foods.
It is important to remember that eating disorders are really about the obsession of weight and food, and the behaviors related to food intake are the behavioral manifestations of those obsessions. They will constantly monitor their weight and have extreme concern with their body size and shape, often checking themselves out frequently in the mirror. Their comments about themselves will be extremely negative, and they will magnify even the slightest impairment. Their mood may change, and they will become increasingly sad, depressed, anxious and ashamed, sinking into feelings of very low self-esteem. They tend to isolate, and will no longer want to be around friends that they used to see. They will counter your expressions of concerns by convincing you that they are actually being healthy in their approach. As the problems progress, they may skip meals or you may notice that they have discarded their food when you are not looking. They very well may make frequent trips to the bathroom. They may take up an obsession with exercise as a form of “health” or weight control, fearing about missing even one day.
As parents, we can be seduced, at first, thinking our children are going down a healthy road of exercising, eating healthy and taking care of themselves. However, the quality of their choices and the obsessive nature of their thoughts should be clues that something may be amiss.
Weight loss and/or weight fluctuations will be the most noticeable signs you will see from your children. They will suffer abdominal pains, stomach cramps, menstrual irregularities and feelings of fullness or bloating. Binging and purging will result in dental problems and cuts and calluses on the hands/fingers, both related to excessive vomiting. They will experience dry skin and hair, brittle nails, thinning hair and muscle weakness. They can become dizzy and have fainting spells, and are frequently fatigued. They will experience sleep problems, dark circles under the eyes and poor wound healing. As the problems progress, the physical symptoms become worse and certainly frighten most parents. The effects of eating disorders appear extremely dangerous because they are extremely dangerous.
Steps to Take
If you suspect your child is developing an eating disorder, it is essential to lovingly confront him or her with what you are observing, to express concern for his or her well-being and to get qualified help as soon as possible. A visit with a pediatrician, especially one that is knowledgeable in eating disorders, is mandatory. Lab results can confirm concerns and help determine how progressed the problem is. It is also essential to consult with a mental health professional who has expertise in eating disorders. Do not hesitate to question someone’s experience and qualifications. An experienced clinician will have a team of specialists they consult with including dieticians, psychiatrists, physicians and treatment programs when necessary.
If your child’s problems are in the early stages, he or she will benefit from the uncovering of underlying issues related to the problem. If the eating disorder has progressed significantly, you will likely need to seek a team approach to care. At that stage, the most important aspect is that your child is medically followed and monitored.
As always—information is the key. The more you know, the more you can try to either prevent a problem or recognize it in its early stages. It is important to take the matter very seriously. Eating disorders are not just a phase, and they are not just a harmless choice.
Remember, if you have issues you would like to see addressed, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moe Gelbart, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Thelma McMillen Center