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Eating disorders can be a difficult subject for parents to broach. It is important to understand you are not alone and there is help available for teens who have eating disorders and their families. Residential treatment programs and other types of treatment can help a teen on the road to recovery from an eating disorder. Residential programs for teenagers are just one of the treatment options available for this age group.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders include bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder, among others.

  • Bulimia Nervosa

    A teen with bulimia nervosa might have frequent episodes of binge eating followed by self-induced vomiting, excessive laxative use or exercise and other behaviors intended to avoid weight gain.

  • Anorexia Nervosa

    A teen with anorexia nervosa may develop a persistent restriction in the intake of food. Teens with the disorder have a persistent fear of gaining weight even though they might be very underweight based on their height. They often have a distorted body image and are unable to recognize that their body weight is too low.

  • Binge Eating Disorder

    This diagnosis includes recurrent episodes of binge eating. The teen may eat until they are uncomfortably full or eat much more rapidly than normal. They might eat large amounts of food when not hungry and feel alone and embarrassed because of how much they ate.

  • Other specified eating disorders

    Among others, this diagnosis might include the disorder orthorexia, which involves an obsession with “clean” or pure food. A teen with this disorder might persistently refuse to eat any food that has fat, sugar or salt. They might restrict their food intake based on food groups. The teen will often increasingly avoid certain types of foods and become extremely anxious or upset when unable to limit their intake to only certain foods.

Why Do Teens Develop Eating Disorders?

There are a lot of myths about eating disorders, such as the myth that eating disorders are solely caused by a societal pressure to be thin or to look a certain way. While cultural pressure might play a contributing role in the development of eating disorders for some teens, scientific evidence suggests that eating disorders are much more complicated. Genetic factors likely play a large role in the development of eating disorders. Research has found that both bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa share much of the same biological basis. Even though they have different symptoms, both are highly heritable. The risk for these disorders tends to be as much as 80 percent genetic.

Teenagers with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa tend to have certain personality characteristics. For example, they may be perfectionistic or be very sensitive to criticism or punishment. Teens that have these personality traits may be more at risk of developing an eating disorder than others.

What Are The Consequences Of Eating Disorders?

If not treated, eating disorders can lead to serious health consequences and even death. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Anorexia nervosa, in particular, is associated with a high mortality rate. People with anorexia nervosa have a six fold increased risk of death compared to peers. When the disorder is first diagnosed when the person is in their 20s, the risk of death increases to 18 times compared to peers. This fact underscores the importance of getting treatment as early as possible. Here are some other consequences of eating disorders for teens:

  • Cardiovascular problems

    Consuming fewer calories than the body needs to function causes the heart to stop working properly. Blood pressure and pulse both begin to drop because the heart is not able to pump blood correctly. This significantly increases the risk for heart failure.

  • Electrolyte imbalances

    Not eating enough as well as purging can cause electrolyte imbalances. Electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, play an important part in the body’s overall functioning. They are critical for heart and muscle functioning. Electrolyte imbalances can lead to heart failure and death.

  • Neurological issues

    Starvation, extreme fasting and purging can interfere with brain functioning. When the brain doesn’t get the fuel that it needs to function, it can cause concentration problems, fainting, insomnia and seizures.

  • Gastrointestinal problems

    Food restriction and purging both interfere with normal gastrointestinal functioning. Stomach pain and bleeding, vomiting, stomach ruptures and intestinal obstructions are all possible complications of an eating disorder.

  • Endocrine disturbances

    When the body doesn’t get enough energy, it cannot produce hormones efficiently. Because the body cannot produce enough estrogen, females with eating disorders may stop menstruating. Eating disorders can cause insulin resistance, which can lead to Type 2 D Starvation can also cause cholesterol levels to rise.

  • Kidney problems

    Starvation and purging can lead to dehydration. Prolonged dehydration can cause kidney failure.

Signs Of An Eating Disorder

  • A strong fixation on body size or weight.

  • Severely restricting certain types of foods

    Teens with eating disorders may only eat one type of food or they may eat only foods that are non-fat, low calorie or whole. Certain foods might be labeled as “bad” by the teen.

  • Feeling shame or guilt after eating

    A teen with an eating disorder might have feelings of failure or shame regarding their eating habits.

  • Extreme fear of gaining weight

    Teens who have anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa often have strong fears of gaining weight even though they might be underweight.

  • Excessive exercising

    Exercising for extremely long periods of time or numerous times each day or feeling a need to burn off all of the calories from a meal.

  • Developing rituals involving food

    These might include obsessive chewing or following certain steps before eating.

  • Eating excessive amounts of food in one setting

    Teens with binge eating disorder or bulimia may eat large amounts of food at one time.

  • Hoarding or hiding food

    This behavior is common in teens with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder. The food will be saved for later binges.

  • Abusing laxatives

    Teens who have bulimia nervosa often abuse laxatives to try to lose weight.

  • Going to the bathroom immediately after eating

    Teens who purge might go to the bathroom after meals. Parents might notice that they become angry or anxious when they cannot immediately get to the bathroom after a meal.

  • Low blood pressure or pulse

    Teens with anorexia nervosa might have a persistently low pulse or blood pressure.

  • Frequent complaints of feeling dizzy, weak or passing out

    This is one of the signs of anorexia nervosa. It is often related to electrolyte imbalances in the body.

  • Depression, irritability or anxiety

    Teens with eating disorders often have other co-occurring mental health issues. Anxiety and depression are common psychiatric disorders that occur with eating disorders.

  • Loss of menstruation

    A female with an eating disorder may not get their period or they might stop menstruating.

How Can Parents Talk To Their Teen About Eating Disorders?

Due to the serious and numerous complications of eating disorders and the high fatality rate, it is essential that parents learn more about teen residential treatment if they notice the above signs of an eating disorder. The first thing that parents should do is talk to their teen.

Find The Right Time And Place

The first step in talking with a teen about an eating disorder is to choose a time when both the parent(s) and the teen will not feel rushed. Ideally, this should be a time when there are no activities planned or things to do.

Many parents find that choosing a private, quiet place that is free from distraction works best. Others find that talking while taking a walk or doing some other activity works best as this is more natural.

State Observations

Parents will find that stating observations using “I statements” may work best. An example would be “I have noticed that you don’t really eat much throughout the day” or “I have noticed that you spend a lot of time in the bathroom after dinner.” Parents should state their observations non-judgmentally and without blame.

Focus On Behavior

When talking with an adolescent or teen who might have an eating disorder, it is important for parents to focus on behavior rather than appearance. Telling a teen who has lost a lot of weight that they are nothing but “skin and bones” is not helpful. Instead, parents should identify the specific behaviors that are a problem.

Use Active Listening

Using active listening techniques will help the teen feel heard. This will also encourage the teen to speak up. Active listening lets the teen know that the parent values their opinion and thoughts. Active listening means not interrupting.

Don’t Criticize

Although it might seem that a teenager with an eating disorder who refuses to eat is being oppositional, that is not the case. Eating disorders involve maladaptive thoughts that trigger the behavior. Criticizing teens about an eating disorder may cause them to feel like they can’t talk to anyone, become even more secretive and possibly get worse.

Keep Emotions Under Control

Many teens with eating disorders will feel threatened or angry when confronted with parents’ concerns about these behaviors. Some teens feel embarrassed about their behaviors as they are often done in secret. They may yell, scream or cry. It is important for parents to be prepared for this possibility and keep their own emotions under control.

Set Firm Limits

Many teens with eating disorders don’t recognize the need for residential treatment services. That doesn’t mean that they won’t get better with treatment. Although a teen may not be willing to participate in treatment, parents are ultimately responsible for their adolescent or teen. Parents must stay focused on the long-term needs of their child or teen, which means getting them help for their eating disorder. If the teen refuses help or if the parent needs additional support, the parent should seek the advice of a treatment professional.

Where Can Parents Turn For Help?

Recovery from an eating disorder takes professional help usually from a residential treatment center for teens or a similar program. Many teens who have eating disorders are not aware of the need for teen residential treatment — at first. Others fear that if they get treatment at a residential treatment center they will have to stop the eating disorder behaviors which can produce extreme feelings of anxiety or worry. Anxiety and worry often cause oppositional behaviors in kids and teens. So, it is important that parents insist on a professional evaluation for a teen who has signs of an eating disorder, even if the teen does not want help. Of course, it is always best for parents to try to encourage teens to get help for an eating disorder on their own. However, if their teen refuses to get help, parents should be prepared to talk with an eating disorder specialist at a residential treatment facility on their own.

Many people with eating disorders say they are glad someone stepped in and helped them, even though they might have been reluctant to get help at first.