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With a new year dawning, it is common for people to start thinking about ways to better themselves and enhance their lives. A New Year feels like hope and a fresh start. Health priorities, such as weight management, often top the list of most popular New Year’s resolutions. In 2018, “eat healthier” was the most common New Year’s resolution followed closely by “get more exercise”. What do eating disorder treatment centers say about making resolutions for the new year?

A New Year’s Resolution History Lesson

The practice of making resolutions for the new year started with the Babylonians. They would make promises to their gods at the beginning of each new year in the hope that those gods would favor them by reducing their debt or improving their lives in some way. The Romans keep the practice going when they made promises to the god Janus (January) in the same way.

The practice of New Year’s resolutions has many parallels throughout the centuries and even transverses religion and heritage. Early Christians held watch night services and made preparations for the coming year with prayer and resolutions of change. Essentially, a resolution, by design, has always served as a creed for self-improvement.

Unfortunately, often modern-day New Year’s resolutions fail, and for people participating in eating disorder counseling that sense of failure can have troubling effects. Are New Year’s resolutions helpful for teens who might have an eating disorder or who are in eating disorder recovery?

Eating Disorder Basics for Teens

To answer the question, one must know more about eating disorder conditions, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder. In general, teens with eating disorders focus on their body weight and proportion along with how much food they eat or don’t eat.

Eating disorders often start during the teen years, and there are many types, such as:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
  • Orthorexia

Each presentation has different symptoms and potential health complications. For example, adolescents with anorexia nervosa may have low body weight and a distorted perception of their own body shape and size.

It is also possible for a teen to have more than just one disorder, such as both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. A teenager with both bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, for example, may eat above normal amounts of food in one sitting then induce vomiting to be rid of the potential calories.

There are some common symptoms that can indicate an eating disorder. Some things parents should look for in their teens include:

  • Skipping meals
  • Making excuses not to eat
  • Restrictive diets
  • Excessive focus on eating healthy
  • Teens wanting to create their own meals
  • Not taking part in social activities where food is central
  • Talking about being too fat
  • Looking in the mirror and commenting on flaws
  • Eating lots of sweets or fatty foods
  • Using laxatives or weight loss supplements
  • Excessive exercise
  • Calluses on knuckles caused by inducing vomiting
  • Loss of tooth enamel
  • Going to the bathroom right after eating
  • Sneaking food

It is important families keep in mind that eating disorders are illnesses. It is not clear why some teens get them, but there are known risk factors such as:

  • Genetics:if a parent or sibling has an eating disorder the risk is higher for a teen
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder
  • Frequent dieting
  • Stress:some teens under stress will look for relief either in food or by obsessing about their bodies

There are many potential complications for eating disorders and some are life-threatening; this is why residential programs for teenagers in need of recovery exist.

What Is the Right Treatment for Eating Disorders in Teenagers?

Most teens participate in a combination of treatments, such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Nutritional training
  • Medical monitoring
  • Individual counseling
  • Group therapy

Treatment requires a team approach that involves family members, primary care physicians, mental health professionals and dieticians; all of which play a role in the recovery process.

What Is the Recovery Process?

Often eating disorder counseling defines five stages of the recovery process:

  • Pre-contemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Maintenance

During pre-contemplation, there may be a significant amount of denial for the individual with the eating disorder. The next stage involves considering the illness and wanting help. During preparation, teens and families investigate eating disorder treatment options, such as visiting eating disorder treatment centers. The action stage is getting treatment, such as eating disorder counseling or residential programs for teenagers.

What Is the Effect of New Year’s Resolutions on Eating Disorders in Teens?

Most people feel some sense of regret when a New Year’s resolution is not completed. In theory, a resolution seems like a good idea. It motivates people to work toward a goal, to change patterns of behavior and to start something new and exciting. For teens undergoing eating disorder treatment, resolutions can instead be destructive.

One thing almost all resolution-makers have in common is they tend to make unrealistic promises to themselves:

  • Next year I’ll save x amount of dollars each year
  • Next year I’ll get a new job that pays more
  • Next year I’ll keep the garage clean all the time

It can turn into a vicious cycle for anyone. For those with eating disorders, it can also exacerbate their triggers worsening the condition instead of motivating change.

The problem with most resolutions is they are vague attempts at change, not carefully strategized plans. Change is hard enough but without structure and actionable steps, failure more likely.

Eating disorder recovery is more complicated than simply making a promise to yourself. The path to recovery requires support, acceptance and at times, the help of a eating disorder treatment team.

What Is a Relapse Episode?

Part of managing eating disorders recovery in teens is creating a relapse prevention plan. Eating disorder recovery is challenging, but it does not define someone. Everyone has the occasional slip in life. It is essential that parents separate the illness from the teen in order to fully and unconditionally support their loved one on the path to true recovery, not matter how winding or difficult it may be.

For most, a small setback does not mean recovery begins all over again. Slips will happen during recovery. Relapse, however, involves the typical day to day eating disordered behavior returning. The pressure felt from a New Year’s resolution can lead to a relapse episode that requires eating disorder treatment along with intense feelings of guilt, which in turn can make recovery more difficult.

The Burden of a New Year

It is true New Year’s resolutions can be inspiring, but for the teen with an eating disorder, the start of the year may feel stressful. Stress itself can trigger eating disordered behaviors, especially when family and friends begin talking about the latest diet fad or hitting the gym more often.

How to Make Resolutions a Part of Eating Disorder Recovery?

There is no rule that says teens cannot make New Year’s resolutions part of their eating disorder recovery. The key is to make those resolutions part of the eating disorder treatment by keeping them realistic and rewarding instead of stressful and difficult to achieve.

Don’t:

  • Make resolutions about weight loss, eating or exercise
  • Make them about body size or shape
  • Make them about appearance

Do make resolutions connected to eating disorder recovery, such as:

  • Staying connected to a support system
  • Communicating with family and friends
  • Keeping all scheduled meetings at eating disorder treatment centers or with a counselor
  • Being more patient during recovery
  • Considering residential programs for teenagers,if necessary

There are ways to make healthy New Year’s resolutions that do not involve appearance or eating disorder treatment. For example, one could work on being more flexible in life or finding patience for themselves and others. Cutting out stress is a positive choice, especially if there are actionable steps to get there, such as:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Creating healthy sleep habits
  • Keeping a journal

Eating disorders are not the only part of a teen’s life. The important step is to shift the focus off triggering interactions or environments and surround yourself with people and things to support recovery.

The Three Word Resolution Plan

New Year’s resolutions do not have to be a complex system. One of the most effective strategies for resolutions is the three word program. The goal is to pick three words and use them as guides for the coming year. For example,

  • Focus- Support – Flexibility
  • Learn- Plan – Communicate
  • Hope- Health – Happiness

The concept is to use these three words as a mantra throughout the year to stay on track with goals. Keeping the phrase somewhat vague means the process can work in almost any situation, even for those struggling with eating disorders in teens.

The National Eating Disorder Association reports that:

  • Up to .4 percent of teen women and .1 percent of teen men experience anorexia
  • 2 percent of young girls have either anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder
  • Sub-threshold anorexia occurs in 1.1 to 3.0 teen girls. Sub-threshold refers to exhibiting signs of the disease, but not yet to the clinical stage
  • Teens aged 15 to 24 with anorexia are ten times more likely to die than their peers

Recovery for an eating disorder is possible for all teens in need. It is necessary to be patient and to make choices that support recovery for the individual with the disorder and their loved ones. New Year’s resolutions can work against that process. Loved ones should work with their teens in recovery to support them in making positive, non-triggering choices in the New Year.

Communication is a critical piece of eating disorder recovery; we encourage you to sit and down and talk as a family. Get the eating disorder counselor involved in that conversation, as well. The choices your teen makes today could impact their entire lives and influence future New Year’s resolutions.