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As they move toward adulthood, teens tend to keep more of their thoughts, feelings, and actions private from their parents. Although this helps foster independence, it can also serve to keep many of their challenges hidden, leaving them without much-needed support. This can potentially bring along a number of serious repercussions, especially when those challenges center around disordered eating behaviors.

Thankfully, parents can stay on their toes by learning more about the most common eating disorders and how each one presents in teenagers. Here’s what they need to know to help keep their teens safe and healthy through their formative years.

Anorexia Nervosa

As teens’ bodies grow and change, it is not uncommon for them to attempt to regain control by restricting their food intake, potentially leading to the development of anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder centers around an obsessive desire to have a thin build and a major fear of gaining weight.

In fact, many teens may not even be able to see that they are thin, which encourages them to continue restricting calories to unsafe levels. Despite their preoccupation with staying thin, they may hide their concerns or write them off as a desire to stay fit and healthy. Only when their weight drops to unsafe levels can parents catch on to the problem, unless they know what else to look for.

Signs and Symptoms

Beyond a preoccupation with their body weight, size, and shape, teens with anorexia nervosa may exhibit many other signs and symptoms, including:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent dieting
  • Anxiety about food
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor body image
  • Compulsive exercising

Teens may also insist on following certain food rituals that allow them to restrict their calories and cope with the discomfort. They may only take small bites of their food and eat really slowly. Or they may start to indicate they do not like some of their favorite foods if the calorie counts are too high for their liking.

Alternatively, these teens may simply claim to have a stomachache to avoid eating or due to constipation caused by a lack of food. Then, skip meals as a result of their discomfort.

Other behaviors may change as their disordered thoughts and behaviors take their toll. Teens with anorexia nervosa may attempt to hide their weight loss by wearing bulky clothing or lots of layers. They may also check their bodies in the mirror frequently, expressing their dissatisfaction vocally or just with their facial expressions.

Many teens start to isolate themselves from their friends and family as well, especially by skipping group mealtimes to hide their habits. They may feel a loss of connection as they sink deeper into their compulsion to control their food intake and body weight. This can lead to depression that makes it even harder to reach out for help.

Potential Complications

If the symptoms of anorexia nervosa go unnoticed, the continued behaviors can result in serious physical and mental health complications. As they go without enough calories and nutrients each day, their bodies start to break down their own tissues for fuel. Their muscles are typically the first to experience the effects, putting the heart at risk of damage. The lack of nutrients can also take a toll on the bones, increasing the risk of fractures and early-onset osteoporosis.

Other physical health problems associated with untreated anorexia nervosa in teens include:

  • Constipation
  • Stomach pain
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Anemia
  • Pancreatitis
  • Thyroid imbalance

Over time, the lack of food causes the body’s natural equilibrium to shift out of balance, throwing off everything from thyroid hormones to cholesterol. Even the menstrual cycle can be thrown off track, as can the fluids in the body, potentially leading to dehydration.

The physical health effects are just the start, too. Mental health problems tend to quickly follow, worsening the disordered thoughts and behaviors. Without adequate nutrition, teens may start to have trouble concentrating on their schoolwork and maintaining steady moods. They also become more susceptible to depression and anxiety, especially as their self-esteem continues to decline and disordered thoughts overwhelm their minds.

If any of these problems start to affect teens, their parents may want to work with an eating disorder treatment specialist to see if anorexia nervosa is the cause. These professionals can perform an assessment to pinpoint the issue and determine what treatments might help.

Bulimia Nervosa

Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that can affect teens, causing them to develop many different health problems if left untreated. When affected by this condition, teens may feel a compulsion to overeat large amounts of food, then vomit to eliminate it from their bodies. Most often, they tend to engage in this cycle in private, though there are still many signs parents can watch for in assessing their teen’s wellbeing.

Signs and Symptoms

Although it is common for teens to engage in eating disorder behaviors for a semblance of control over their bodies, there are many other underlying causes to consider, including genetics. The signs and symptoms are all largely the same, however, giving parents a way to see the disordered behaviors for what they are.

The most common signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa in teens include:

  • Large amounts of missing food without explanation
  • Spending a lot of time in the bathroom after meals
  • Eating excessive amounts of food without weight gain
  • Frequent upset stomachs
  • Unusual eating rituals
  • Low self-esteem
  • Regular use of laxatives
  • Excessive exercising
  • Fasting behaviors

Teens with this condition may lose weight, though it is common for them to stay the same size. Their body composition will change in response to the balance of calorie intake and output as they engage in the binge and purge behaviors. Weight fluctuations commonly occur, though they may be subtle.

More obvious are the mood swings and personality changes that develop as teens try to deal with the overwhelming disordered thoughts and urges.  And as the condition progresses, the disordered thoughts and behaviors tend to worsen. This causes teens to start to withdraw from their favorite activities with family, friends, and their community.

They may also refuse to eat meals with other people in fear they cannot control their eating or will not have somewhere private to purge the food. Even family meals can cause teens with bulimia nervosa distress, which leads to claims of stomachaches and other issues to get out of eating with everyone.

Potential Complications

Even though teens with bulimia nervosa do not always go without enough calories or lose a lot of weight, this condition can still cause serious health problems as it progresses. Both physical and mental health problems commonly occur, making it incredibly important to seek care immediately upon noticing the signs and symptoms.

Physical health complications caused by bulimia nervosa in teens include:

  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Tremors
  • Blurry vision
  • Electrolyte imbalances

Sore throats and even scarring on the backs of the fingers frequently arise as a result of the purging episodes. The scarring develops as their teeth scrape on their fingers as they attempt to void all the food they ate.

Since vomiting brings up caustic stomach acids that touch the teeth and gums, dental problems may start in earnest as they engage in purging behaviors. Regularly eating sugary foods can take its toll as well, leading to loss of enamel and lots of cavities.

The gastrointestinal system also suffers damage from excessive food consumption and frequent vomiting. Teens may mention feeling nauseous or constipated, though diarrhea can occur as well. They may look bloated and have recurring indigestion after meals.

Without the right balance of electrolytes in their system, teens with bulimia nervosa are at serious risk of organ damage. Without treatment, this condition can cause kidney failure, cardiac arrest, and many other life-threatening complications.

Beyond the physical maladies, this eating disorder can cause teens to have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Mental health complications are much harder to spot in teens and link back to bulimia nervosa. Parents can enlist the help of a mental health professional to assess teens who simply seem out of sorts, however.

Binge Eating Disorder

Although it is a bit less common than anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder can affect kids and teens of all ages. This condition is a bit harder to detect as well because it only involves excessive overeating without purging behaviors.

Many parents chalk it up to growing kids needing extra food, but it goes well beyond that reasoning. And without treatment, this condition can cause many physical and mental health effects that can stick with teens for life. There are surefire signs to look for, however, giving parents the ability to monitor their teen’s wellbeing and spot binge eating disorder.

Signs and Symptoms

Although the signs and symptoms of binge eating disorder are often hard to detect, knowing what to look for can help. The most common signs include:

  • Eating large amounts of food in one sitting
  • Consuming food when not even hungry
  • Only eating in private settings
  • Obsessing about eating
  • Hoarding food
  • Zoning out while eating
  • Expressions of guilt and shame
  • Frequent dieting

Since teens with binge eating disorder do not purge the food after overeating, it is common for many to gain weight and even become obese. They may express dissatisfaction about their bodies or just generally have low self-esteem. Their feelings of shame and guilt may intensify as well, causing them to withdraw from family and friends. Teens may even decline to engage in their favorite activities, especially if the event centers around food in any way.

Potential Complications

The complications associated with binge eating disorder can affect the physical and mental health of teens. The physical health effects are typically a result of the harm obesity causes, such as:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Sleep apnea
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease

As their weight increases, the risk of developing these health problems does as well. If a doctor’s visits include blood tests, warning signs may appear in the form of abnormal cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure readings. Doctors may not immediately link these abnormalities to eating disorders, however, unless the parents have shared their concerns.

Without treatment, this eating disorder can also take a toll on mental health, increasing the risk of depression and anxiety. Teens may struggle with low self-esteem as they experience a loss of control in managing their disordered thoughts and behaviors. The resulting shame and guilt can cause them to sink further into depression or have increased anxiety as they attempt to regain that control.

How to Get Help for Teenagers with Eating Disorders

When parents notice any of the above signs in their teens, they can reach out to a treatment center by phone for help in getting an eating disorder diagnosis and treatment. During the call, the admissions specialists will assist in finding the perfect level of treatment for the teen, providing them with much-needed support and compassion. Parents will remain involved in every step of the way, which helps heal the family unit while helping teens become and remain fully recovered.

After speaking with admissions specialists, everyone can work together to find a suitable time for teens to come down and check into the treatment center. Parents are encouraged to accompany their teens and meet the treatment team, learn about the program, and provide their support. They will also have opportunities to return for family programming that brings everyone together in healing.

To get started in acquiring eating disorder treatment for their teens, parents can call the team at Clementine at 866-678-0923. Admissions specialists are always available to take the call and start the assessment process right away. Families can trust that they will receive the support they seek without judgment and with the compassion needed to make a full recovery.



Carrie Hunnicutt

With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.