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Teenagers who are experiencing disordered thoughts surrounding eating and food can be blinded by their own thoughts as to the problems that arise from them. Worse, disordered eating behaviors often result from these thoughts – putting them at greater risk for severe health consequences. Because of the difficulties in socializing, academic achievement, and health resulting from eating disorders,adolescent-focused eating disorders treatment programs often stress the importance of rehabilitating disordered thought patterns and replacing them with mindful self-consideration.

Many disordered thoughts and behaviors are a dysfunctional coping technique for stressors, so eating disorder treatment programs help teens develop the coping skills they need to overcome the trap of flawed thinking patterns and the behaviors that result from them. A variety of methodologies can train teens to effectively apply healthier coping skills when encountering triggers while navigating real-life situations.

To be clear – real-life situations are the goal. Beginning with practicing coping skills in the initial stages of treatment, clients at eating disorder treatment centers engage in more situations like visiting restaurants or cooking together to put these lessons into practice. Teens eventually develop the confidence they need to use their skills daily in remaining recovered at home.

Signs That an Adolescent Is Developing an Eating Disorder

The first signs of a nascent eating disorder are often subtle, and they can occur much earlier than many people think. Some forms of eating disorders have been observed in children as young as 8. However, there are certain things parents can look out for that will indicate whether further recovery steps should be taken. For example, frequent comments about being “fat” or an obsession with appearance might indicate a body image distortion that can lead to an eating disorder. Other signs may include:

  • Food rituals
  • Eating in private but not at meals
  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing
  • Feeling a loss of control regarding food intake
  • Obsessive meal planning
  • Frequent dieting
  • Intense focus on body size and shape
  • Expressed fear of gaining weight
  • Weight fluctuations, both increases, and decreases
  • Dizziness and fainting


Some of these criteria are present in virtually every kind of eating disorder, while some are specific to a particular type. Parents can use their own assessments to determine if their teens may have an eating disorder or are beginning to experience disordered thoughts and behaviors.

If one or several of these symptoms are present, it’s time to consult an eating disorder professional, such as a therapist or the staff and an eating disorder recovery center. These experts can assess teens’ attitudes about eating and the behaviors more capably and make suggestions for further action.This might take the form of a residential program where they live at the center or an outpatient/day treatment program. 

What Are the Causes of Eating Disorders?

People at risk of experiencing an eating disorder have a natural tendency to undergo obsessive thought patterns about eating, body image and physical fitness, and weight. There is no one single cause that can be easily identified. Rather, genetics, biological factors, and cultural pressures most often combine to shift their thought patterns toward the negative or disordered.

Peer pressure and media influence can also have a profound effect on teens’ attitudes about eating and body image. During the teenage years, when a person’s sense of identity is developing, teens may compare themselves to their “beautiful” peers and the various models and actors presented to them in the media. The level of perfection pushed by these media outlets is difficult if not impossible to attain, reinforcing feelings of low-self esteem and creating a vicious cycle.

These feelings of self-loathing act as triggers that cause teens to resort to dysfunctional behaviors to cope. These behaviors may immediately satisfy the urge to gain a feeling of control over their weight or self-image, but the longer-term consequences are harsh. To fully recover from eating disorders, teens must replace the disordered thoughts and behaviors with healthy coping skills and helpful habits.

Health Risks Associated with Untreated Eating Disorders

Untreated disordered eating behaviors tend to worsen in severity and frequency. In addition to growing depression and anxiety, which frequently co-occur with eating disorders, physical heath becomes much more at risk as nutrition becomes unbalanced or absent. Health problems related to dysfunctional eating disorder behaviors and thought patterns include:

  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Salivary gland swelling
  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Blood sugar spikes and crashes
  • Insulin resistance
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Getting Past Self-Imposed Barriers to Treatment

It’s common for people with eating disorders to hide their symptoms and when confronted, to resist talking about the issue or getting the help they need. To help teens understand the need for treatment, and motivate them to take the first steps, a professional eating disorder assessment is a great idea.The admissions staff at an eating disorder treatment center can perform an initial, informal assessment over the phone or in person to this end. Through a serious of standard questions about the individual’s eating habits, self-image and body image, disordered thought patterns, and exercise, the specialists can assess whether treatment is needed and in what capacity.

For an adolescent who may not be willing to discuss this with heir parents, an assessment can help them recognize their disordered thought patterns and behaviors. The admissions specialists, as neutral sources, may also be able to allay fears about what treatment entails and make the adolescent more comfortable with the idea. This process helps ease teens into accepting they have to take steps toward recovery.

Unless the parents opt to discuss the issue first with a doctor or individual therapist, the intake assessment is typically the first step in the admissions process at eating disorder treatment centers. The admission specialists will not only assess the eating disorder symptoms but any other mental health or physical accommodations the client would require. When it’s decided the teen will come in for treatment, his or her information is passed on to the therapy and clinical teams to begin planning an appropriate treatment program. 

What Are the Goals of Treatment for Eating Disorders?

Reforming disordered eating behaviors and attitudes about eating, body image, and exercise patterns are integral to an effective program. The care team will utilize several treatment techniques to help adolescents identify distorted thoughts and recognize that those thoughts are flawed. With this approach, it’s possible for the client to shift their mindset to prepare them to use their healthy coping skills.

Eating disorder treatment centers help teens learn what they need to know through an escalating level program of intensive therapy sessions leading to real-life applications. While the program is invariable be different from person to person,the models they use may include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, art therapy, and interpersonal psychotherapy. Crucially, most programs include extensive group therapy sessions, which are important in contextualizing their eating disorder and garnering support from peers. They can also have their family attend solo and group therapy sessions to help build the teens’ family support network, which is essential for adolescents.

One of the most common and popular activities at eating disorder treatment centers is mindful meditation. When practiced regularly, activities prioritizing mindfulness can help teens understand their feelings in a more objective fashion, and develop healthy coping methods that don’t involve disordered eating behaviors. Best of all, these practices can be used for a lifetime, making them effective ways to manage aftercare.

Increasing Responsibility and Decreasing Disordered Eating

Many eating disorder treatment programs require a clean slate in terms of privileges and responsibilities at the beginning. The eating disorder treatment experts handle all meal planning, exercise regimes, and daily scheduling to provide structure and guidance. As the clients meet the expectations at each level of the program, they gain more privileges and responsibilities, slowly increasing their self-reliance in making sound decisions about food and eating.

Each level of the treatment program provides teens guidance and support in challenging disordered eating attitudes and behaviors through structured activities and exercises. Clients will begin to plan their own meals, gain more privacy privileges, engage in excursions like nature walks, and visits to restaurants as they prove their capability to maintain their recovery without supervision.

Aftercare and Continuing Education Are Essential

Eating disorder thoughts and behaviors are pervasive and insidious; they have a way of coming back again and again, even if a person has undergone treatment successfully. After graduating from an eating disorder recovery program, teens must continue to self-assess their thought patterns and behaviors and make adjustments accordingly to remain recovered. If they have any difficulties along the way, most eating disorder treatment centers offer an aftercare program that provides resources and support for their graduates.

These resources range from educational webinars to alumni reunions, and sometimes just a friendly shoulder to cry on if needed. Normally there is a database of useful materials at their command as well, which can continue education about their eating disorder and ways to combat it.

In addition to helping their graduates, there are usually resources for the parents available at adolescent eating disorder treatment centers. There might be parents’ groups or support sessions available, orthey may also tap into the online resources to keep up to speed on their responsibilities as a parent of a teen with an eating disorder. The center might also provide a lifeline to parents if their child relapses, providing support, and planning a return to the center if necessary.

Helping Teens Acquire Eating Disorder Treatment 

Teenagers often have difficulty discussing their problems with their parents or teachers, and this is doubly so when it involves the feelings of guilt and shame that usually surround an eating disorder. This can force these negative thoughts and behaviors to become more and more ingrained, making the path to recovery even more difficult.

Therefore, parents should attempt to acquire help for their teens immediately upon noticing a problem. With a quick call, admissions specialists at the treatment center can help intervene and give teens insights that open their eyes to their situation. These professionals aim to help teens understand the path to eating disorder recovery and the benefits of beginning on that journey. Teens can have all their questions answered during these discussions and learn more about the treatment options available to them.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.