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How to Support Teens Healing from Eating Disorders

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Healing from eating disorders is possible and sustainable. However, it can be a long, hard road. Therefore, peers and loved ones need to know how to support a teen in recovery from an eating disorder.

Moreover, the arrival of summer and swimsuits brings body image issues to the forefront. Such issues can escalate into disordered eating or diagnosable eating disorders.

Hence, this is the time to learn how to recognize ED symptoms. Therefore, it’s easier to help friends and family members who are battling this very serious threat to mental and physical health.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

First of all, knowledge about eating disorder (ED) symptoms increases awareness of this mental health condition. As a result, awareness increases the likelihood of teens with eating disorders getting the treatment they need.

Because of their ongoing negative impact on the body, eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental illnesses. A 2011 review study of nearly 50 years of research confirmed that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. For that reason, it is vital to pay attention to any warning signs. Therefore, treatment and recovery can begin as soon as possible.

Eating disorders in teens, including teen anorexia, teen binge eating disorder, and teen bulimia, produce both behavioral signs and physical symptoms.

Behavioral Symptoms of Eating Disorders

  • Making excuses to avoid eating
  • Always on a diet, even when not needed
  • Over-exercising; obsessed with exercise to lose weight
  • Secretly storing food or eating alone, particularly at night
  • A distorted teen body image; body dysmorphia (an obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in one’s appearance)
  • Compulsive use of laxatives, diet pills, and weight-loss aids
  • An intense, obsessive focus on calories and caloric intake
  • An unwillingness to discuss weight gains or weight losses
  • Resistance to joining social situations where eating is expected
  • Extended bathroom use during or right after meals

Physical Symptoms of Eating Disorders

  • Unhealthy weight loss or gain
  • Repeated weight cycling, going up and down
  • Constipation or vomiting
  • Skin rash or dry skin
  • Erosion of tooth enamel; dental cavities
  • Loss of hair and/or nail quality
  • Obvious signs of exhaustion; insomnia
  • Irregular menstruation or absence of menstruation
  • Easily bruised; more prone to physical injury
  • Cold sensitivity; inability to tolerate cold

Newport Academy Mental Health Resources:Support Teens Healing from Eating Disorders

How to Approach a Friend You’re Worried About

Do you suspect a friend or family member has an eating disorder? Even though it might be difficult or uncomfortable, say something as soon as possible. It’s important to address the problem early in its development before long-term health consequences emerge. If not addressed, teen eating disorders can lead to permanent health consequences and even death.

Approach the conversation by making sure that your friend or family member understands that you are there to help. Hence, let them know that you’re concerned about them, not judging or criticizing them. Use “I” phrases, such as, “I care about you” or “I’m worried about you.” As a result, they will not feel attacked.

In conclusion, the most important thing anyone can do for a person with a teen eating disorder is to encourage treatment. Don’t try to talk them out of the behavior. Instead, encourage them to seek help from a trained professional. The longer an eating disorder remains undiagnosed and untreated, the harder it is on the body. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to overcome. Hence, urge your friend or loved one to see a doctor or therapist right away.

5 Ways to Support a Friend Healing from Eating Disorders

Ask what you can do to help.

Find out what your friend’s goals are. When you know what they are working toward, you can provide support along the way. However, don’t support unhealthy eating habits or attitudes toward food. In addition, don’t try to figure out what’s going on without professional help. Only trained professionals can determine causes of eating disorders in teenagers.

Check in with your friend to show them that you care about their progress.

Spending time with a friend or relative in recovery from an ED can be challenging. However, don’t let that stop you from reaching out. Thus, check in often to find out how they are doing.

Do things together that promote wellness.

Part of healing from eating disorders is learning new ways to cope with feeling sad, angry, anxious, lonely, or out of control. Therefore, invite your friend to take a walk in nature, go to a meditation class, listen to music, or make art with you. Activities that create a sense of joy, flow, serenity, and safety help to change the neurological pathways in the brain.

Be mindful of your language.

While it might not seem serious to you, the way you describe yourself can have an impact on a friend with an eating disorder. Avoid phrases like, “I used to be so skinny,” or “Does this make me look fat?” These statements may stir up feelings of guilt and shame in your friend or loved one.

Provide an example of healthy eating.

Eating out with a friend recovering from an ED can be challenging. Teens with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders often fixate on calorie counts, which are sometimes included on menus. Therefore, talk about what you are going to order based on how you feel. For example, if you just worked out and are especially hungry, mention that you will probably order a larger or a more filling meal. If it’s a hot summer day and you want something refreshing, talk about how you plan to order a frozen treat to cool off. Hence, talking about what your body craves is a good reminder of how to tune in to one’s natural appetite.

Remember, Boys and Men Suffer from EDs, Too

While eating disorders in teenage girls are common, peers and parents should know that it’s not just girls and women who suffer from eating disorders. About one in three people suffering from an eating disorder is male, according to the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders.

However, the gender stereotypes around eating disorders mean that fewer boys and men are diagnosed with EDs. Moreover, males are less likely to seek treatment for eating disorders because of the “double stigma” that comes with it. Thus, they are stigmatized for seeking psychological treatment and also for having a mental health condition thought of as feminine.

Therefore, healthcare providers and mental health professionals need to raise awareness around this issue. Hence, decreasing stigmatization will help more people with eating disorders—whether male or female—get the help they need.

A Note for Parents

The advice and tips above may be helpful for parents but are targeted to peers. For parents of teens with eating disorders, deeper involvement is essential after diagnosis. Furthermore, treatment that involves the entire family is highly effective for teens healing from eating disorders.

Eating disorders in adolescence are symptoms of underlying problems, such as anxiety, depression, lack of self-worth, trauma, etc. In adolescence, this often stems from something amiss within the family system. With this in mind, it is important to recognize the eating disorder as a family issue rather than one person’s problem. Thus, offering to participate in treatment helps your loved one feel less isolated and ashamed.

Hence, the family-based treatment approach known as the Maudsley Method or Maudsley Approach includes all family members as an essential part of treatment. Treatment includes reestablishing healthy eating, restoring weight, changing the disordered eating behavior, and addressing underlying mental health issues. In conclusion, family treatment may mean that parents need to critically examine their own attitudes about food, weight, and control.

Learn about Newport Academy’s approach to healing teen eating disorders.

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