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do soRealizing a child has an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder can be a confusing and difficult time for any family. These are concerns that every parent hopes to avoid as their children grow from little kids on the playground into developing adolescents. But unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that most people that develop eating disorders do so in adolescence. When eating disorders like anorexia nervosa do develop, there are helpful resources available for parents, siblings and other loved ones to help navigate the road ahead.

Eating disorder counseling is available for younger children and adolescents in a variety of different care levels including outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization and inpatient or residential eating disorder treatment. In fact, early intervention has shown to be a big factor in long-term eating disorder recovery. Keep reading to learn more about the development of eating disorders in young adults and the targeted adolescent programs available at Clementine center for eating disorders.

Eating Disorders in Adolescence: When Should Parents Be Concerned?

Research shows approximately 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States have some form of an eating disorder. If left untreated, common eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can result in serious health conditions, including fatal conditions like tachycardia, heart arrhythmia and heart attacks. While teenagers are the most susceptible to developing an eating disorder, with the help of a strong support system at home and early intervention, the chances of experiencing many long-term health risks can greatly decrease.

Common Signs of Eating Disorders in Adolescence

1. Body Insecurity

Obsessive or negative thoughts regarding body weight and shape. Teens may complain and worry about being “fat” or wanting to lose weight.

2. Irrational Fears

As the condition develops, many adolescents avoid situations where they need to eat in front of others or in public. They may make excuses about not wanting to eat with family and friends as well.

3. Fad Dieting

An obsession with food and counting calories is also common. Teens may talk about the need to diet and start cutting out food groups to control weight gains.

4. Changes in Appearance

Although the teen years are a time of many physical changes, significant weight fluctuations are cause for concern. Parents may also notice hair loss, excessive facial hair or body hair, swollen salivary glands and dry hair or skin.

5. Secretive Eating

More common in binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa, loved ones may realize large amounts of food have been disappearing over a short period of time with the development of common eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. The presence of unexplained wrappers and hidden containers may also indicate food is being eaten in secret.

6. Isolation

Concerns over their physical appearance and an obsession with food can cause many teens to withdraw from their usual activities and social engagements. Teenagers may also get moody and isolate themselves after eating or make excuses as to why they don’t want to eat out with others.

7. Excessive Exercise

While a commitment to staying physically fit through regular exercise is a good habit to adopt, excessive exercise can be an indication of disordered behaviors in adolescents. Parents should look out for an obsession with exercise that doesn’t stop for injuries, illness, inclement weather or other important commitments.

Why Do Eating Disorders Start So Early?

There are several factors that can contribute to the development of eating disorders early in adolescence. One of the biggest is simply the hormonal changes of puberty. When these changes are combined with the increased need to measure up to peer pressure or societal standards of beauty, it is easy to see why so many young people are left battling this perfect storm.

Most researchers agree the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa can begin with what seems like “regular” dieting. For many teens, this could be something as simple as trying to make weight for a favorite sport. But regular dieting, combined with a multitude of other factors, can slowly begin to change over time into something more extreme and may eventually result in unhealthy weight loss or the recurring cycle of binge eating, many times often followed by dangerous purging behaviors as well.

Other factors that may contribute to the development of common eating disorders in adolescence include:

  • Genetics: Did you know if a parent has had an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime the chances for their child to develop an eating disorder are greatly increased? Research also shows the development of eating disorders is common in twins, indicating there are genetic factors that may contribute to a person’s predisposition to developing anorexia nervosa and other common eating disorders.
  • Trauma: Traumatic events that include physical or sexual abuse can, in some cases, perpetuate the development of eating disorders. It is common for survivors of trauma to experience feelings of shame, guilt a lack of self-control and body dissatisfaction. In an attempt to regain control or cope with these intense feelings, disordered eating behaviors often develop. In fact, studies show as many as 50 percent of people with an eating disorder may also have a trauma disorder.
  • Temperament: Researchers have found there are some genes associated with certain personality traits that may also contribute to the development of eating disorders. Most of these personality traits are heritable and exist long before the eating disorder, and can persist long after recovery as well. Some of these personality traits include perfectionism, obsessive thinking, neuroticism, impulsivity, harm avoidance, rigidity or excessive persistence.
  • Lack of Coping Skills: Many individuals with eating disorders lack the skills needed to tolerate negative experiences. An inability to cope with pain, conflict, depression, anxiety and low self-esteem can easily lead to reliance upon disordered eating behaviors. Most often, young people will turn to restricting, bingeing, purging and excessive exercise in an effort to deal with these common stressors. If left untreated, these negative coping skills can develop even further and quickly lead to increased physical and psychological harm.
  • Sociocultural Ideals: An increased obsession in the media to attain a “perfect” body or meet this thin “ideal” can also contribute to unrealistic body ideals in adolescents. The increased access to global media and social media influences have also helped to further skew perceptions relating to attainable beauty standards. However, it is important to note many people who are exposed to these ideals do not develop eating disorders. It may be that those who are already at-risk have an increased vulnerability to societal messages regarding beauty and weight.

Potential Long-Term Health Risks Associated with Common Eating Disorders

There are many different health risks associated with eating disorders that can have a lasting effect on the developing body and mind of young people. This is just one of the many reasons why early intervention is so important for adolescents with eating disorders. In fact, families are an integral part of the intervention and eating disorder counseling process. Some of the most common health risks young people with eating disorders may face include:

Heart Complications

Severe dehydration, malnutrition, self-induced vomiting and electrolyte imbalances are common with most eating disorders. Each of these health issues can cause damage to the heart and result in blood pressure changes, irregular heartbeat and in severe cases, heart failure.


Studies show nearly one in three children with anorexia nervosa also have a low red blood cell count or mild anemia, and about half of all children with the condition have a low white blood cell count or leukopenia.


Dehydration and fluid loss resulting from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can lead to highly concentrated urine or the production of more urine. This often indicates there is an issue with the kidney’s ability to filter toxins from the body.


Adolescents with eating disorders often experience malnutrition which can increase their risk of injury due to broken bones. Malnutrition negatively affects the body during peak bone formation, increasing the chances they will have decreased bone tissue and may experience bone loss. Bone density is typically found to be low in people with anorexia nervosa. This is often a result of insufficient calcium levels in their diet or the inability to absorb calcium properly due to poor dietary choices.

Digestive Tract

Restricted eating and severe weight loss can slow down normal movement in the intestinal tract. However, once children begin to gain weight normally after recovery, this issue typically resolves quickly.

Endocrine System

For people, the lack of regular menstrual periods is one of the hallmark warning signs of anorexia nervosa. This issue often arises before any severe weight loss can be detected by family members or medical professionals and can continue even after their “normal” medical weight is restored. This may be due to the fact that lower levels of growth hormones are detected in teens with anorexia nervosa. Researchers believe this may also explain why many young people with the condition also experience delayed growth. Luckily, after recovery and the implementation of regular eating habits, most teens will return to a growth pattern that is considered medically normal for their age, height and stature.

How Can Parents Help: When to Seek Treatment for Eating Disorders in Teens?

While it is impossible for parents to prevent the development of common eating disorders, spotting the early warning signs and seeking professional treatment early on can help to reduce symptoms. Early intervention is an integral aspect of the treatment process because it can enhance normal child development, improve their quality of life and encourage realistic attitudes towards food, diet, exercise and weight.

If parents are worried their child may have an eating disorder, it is important to speak with a medical professional right away. Other important things parents can do include:

  • Keep up with all doctor’s appointments
  • Seek out eating disorder treatment programs targeted toward children and adolescents
  • Take part in eating disorder counseling when suggested
  • Tell others about any diagnosis given, including other parents, teachers, etc.
  • Check on resources available for children with eating disorders. Keep in mind treatment may interfere with school, but there are protections set in place to help your child get a proper education
  • Reach out for support from other parents of children with eating disorders, local community services, etc.

Learn More from Clementine Center for Eating Disorders

While an eating disorder diagnosis can be frightening for adolescents and their families, there are plenty of resources available to help navigate the recovery process. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, remember that long-term recovery is possible with the help of a strong support system and early intervention. Interested in learning more about the adolescent eating disorder treatment programs available at Clementine? Call 1.855.900.2221 today to speak with our compassionate admission specialists.




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.