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Adolescent Eating Disorders

Adolescent Eating Disorders

Growing up is hard. While most people yearn for yesteryear as they grow older, they tend to forget that — at times — it was incredibly difficult.

Many young people struggle with their self-confidence and obsess over their appearance until it becomes an issue. Among the more common issues are eating disorders.

According to the Ohio Mental Health Network for School Success (OMNSS),more than 50% of adolescent girls and a third of adolescent boys try to control their weight in unhealthy ways by skipping meals, vomiting, taking laxatives, or fasting.”

While refraining from eating and purging food are associated with eating disorders, the opposite can be true as well. Young people can actually indulge in too much food or may be unable to control the amount of food they eat.

About 95% of people who have an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25. 

While eating disorders are common, they can be very dangerous. If you’re a parent or caregiver, there are signs to look for if you believe your child has an eating disorder.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common eating disorders and symptoms associated with them.

What Does an Eating Disorder Look Like?

Typically, there are three types of eating disorders: bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

The OMNSS says, “Bulimia nervosa is characterized by the eating of large amounts of food in short periods of time (i.e., binge eating) followed by compensatory behaviors to prevent gaining weight. It also involves feeling out of control during binges, and self-esteem is overly dependent on body image.”

Signs of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Discolored teeth
  • Withdrawing from friends
  • Abandoning usual activities
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after eating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Calluses on hands
  • Swelling of cheeks
  • Swelling of jaw area

The OMNSS defines anorexia nervosa as, “Inadequate food intake and a low body weight, which can lead to starvation, excessive weight loss, and in extreme cases, death.”

Signs of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow heart rate
  • Muscle loss
  • Weakness
  • Severe dehydration
  • Reduction in bone density
  • Growth of hair on body
  • Fainting

Binge eating disorder, as explained by the Mayo Clinic, is when “you regularly eat too much food (binge) and feel a lack of control over your eating. You may eat quickly or eat more food than intended, even when you're not hungry, and you may continue eating even long after you're uncomfortably full.”

What Is Adolescence?

Adolescence is the period of life when a child develops into an adult. There are three stages of adolescence recognized by experts, including early adolescence (10-13), middle adolescence (14-18), and late adolescence (19-23).

According to research from the Australian Government Department of Health, the stages are described as:

“Early adolescence (ages 10-13) is a time of emotional and frantic activity which seems relentless. The group rules. Anyone who is 'different' because of physical or mental disability, ethnicity or culture, or physical appearance becomes the subject of ridicule. It is not unusual for young people to be quite cruel at this age.

Middle adolescence (ages 14-18) is characterized by more settled, introspective, and self-conscious behavior. At this age young people are still peer-oriented, but the most pathological young person ceases to intimidate the group. Cruelty becomes less frequent as group members are now able to tell one another to 'knock it off.' Steady relationships and dating take on utmost importance. Some bickering and arguing with parents and siblings usually occurs during this time.

Late adolescence (ages 19-23) is characterized by 'settling down' as the young person becomes more focused on tasks. At this point, decisions regarding careers, relationships, and issues of separation from parents are in the forefront. There is a realization that life does not hold limitless possibilities.”

Throughout the three stages of adolescence, a young person will typically go through physical changes, cognitive (thinking and reasoning) changes, and social changes.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, people with eating disorders often have additional disorders, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

Adolescent Anxiety

At some point, we all deal with anxiety. What causes anxiety is different for everyone, especially young people.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), “Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. It might cause you to sweat, feel restless and tense, and have a rapid heartbeat. It can be a normal reaction to stress.”

While many experts aren’t exactly sure what causes anxiety, things like genetics, stress, and environment are suspected to have some impact.

While there are many anxiety disorders, three of the most common are: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobias.

Generalized anxiety disorder is marked by excessive worry about everyday things like money, loved ones, and overall well-being.

Panic disorder involves panic attacks, which are sudden incidents of extreme fear even when there’s nothing to be fearful of.

Phobias involve intense fear of something that usually isn’t dangerous. Phobias include, but are not limited to, things like social interactions, bugs, heights, and crowded places.

According to the NLM, the following people may be at risk for anxiety disorders:

  • People with certain personality traits
  • People with a family history of mental health disorders
  • People with thyroid problems or arrhythmia
  • People who have experienced trauma

Generally speaking, anyone can battle anxiety, regardless of age, gender, race, or background.

When you’re a young person, there are plenty of stressors and environmental changes, creating a perfect recipe for anxiety. For example, your child could be experiencing:

  • Stress due to grades or schoolwork
  • Problems making friends
  • Bullying
  • Stigmas (slurs)
  • Violence
  • Peer pressure
  • Unsafe neighborhood
  • Applying for college
  • Entering the workforce
  • Balancing responsibilities
  • Self-consciousness
  • Financial problems

But even if your teen isn’t feeling any stressors or environmental impact, do not brush their feelings aside. They are still valid and need to be addressed. Maintain contact with your child, check in with them, and refrain from being judgmental. They need your support.

If your teen is overwhelmed by anxiety, seeking the advice of a medical professional is highly recommended. Not only can they help in acknowledging the potential of an anxiety disorder, but they can also rule out any other health problems that could mimic its symptoms.

Adolescent Depression

Much like anxiety, depression is quite common for teens. However, it is still serious and can be a difficult mental health disorder to control.

The NLM defines depression as “a serious medical illness. It's more than just a feeling of being sad or ‘blue’ for a few days. If you are one of the more than 19 million teens and adults in the United States who have depression, the feelings do not go away. They persist and interfere with your everyday life.”

If you’re depressed, you may feel sad, tired, hopeless, or irritable. You may lose interest in activities you once loved. You may be eating more or not at all. Depression can even cause aches, pains, and digestive problems. Overall, it’s a condition that can cause physical, mental, and emotional distress.

Anyone can experience depression, and there are a variety of factors that contribute to it. Since depression is serious, if your teen is having any of the symptoms mentioned above, they should speak with a medical professional.

In addition to anxiety and depression, contributors to eating disorders include genetics and biology, impulsive behavior, or bad relationships.

There Is a Light at the End of the Tunnel

“No matter what you're going through, there's a light at the end of the tunnel — and it may seem hard to get to it — but you can do it. And just keep working towards it and you'll find the positive side of things.” — Demi Lovato

Adolescence can certainly be a strange, difficult time. However, there is often a light at the end of the tunnel. If your child is going through a difficult period, or if they’ve developed an eating disorder, it can be treated.

Even if you’ve helped your child seek treatment before and it failed, that does not mean the next attempt will not be successful. Do not lose hope.

Your child deserves to live a life of fulfillment, free from eating disorders and/or any mental health disorders they may be facing.

SUN Columbus Is Here for You

If you’re wondering, “Is there even any child therapy near me?”, it’s probably time to seek professional help for your child.

SUN Behavioral Columbus offers evidence-based adolescent therapy treatments, provided by a child psychologist, to help with eating and mental health disorders.

Adolescent therapy is defined as identifying psychological issues that impact mental health and emotional distress. Once your child’s individual needs have been determined, a teen counselor will work with them to identify healthy ways of dealing with whatever is causing their eating disorder and managing depression and/or anxiety.

The combination of medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy may be used to help make managing symptoms of an eating disorder, depression, and/or anxiety much easier.

SUN Behavioral Columbus’ psychiatrists and trauma-informed professionals are here to make sure your child is receiving the care they need throughout the treatment process.

Here at SUN Behavioral Columbus, we believe in empowering our patients to be the expert in their life. This includes being able to identify their needs and learning how to overcome obstacles. Your child can break free from the grasp of an eating or mental health disorder. To learn more about how we can help, call (614) 706-2786.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is one of the most common eating disorders in adolescence?

There are typically three types of eating disorders: bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The Ohio Mental Health Network for School Success says, “Bulimia nervosa is characterized by the eating of large amounts of food in short periods of time (i.e., binge eating) followed by compensatory behaviors to prevent gaining weight. It also involves feeling out of control during binges, and self-esteem is overly dependent on body image.”

The OMNSS defines anorexia nervosa as, “Inadequate food intake and a low body weight, which can lead to starvation, excessive weight loss, and in extreme cases, death.”

Binge eating disorder, as explained by the Mayo Clinic, is when “you regularly eat too much food (binge) and feel a lack of control over your eating. You may eat quickly or eat more food than intended, even when you're not hungry, and you may continue eating even long after you're uncomfortably full.”

Why does an eating disorder usually begin during adolescence?

Everyone is different, so the causes of eating disorders are unique to the individual. However, it’s important to remember that young people do endure a lot throughout their adolescent years. It could be a combination of bullying, self-esteem issues, stress, or something else. It’s important to maintain a direct line of communication with your child to stay informed on what’s going on in their lives.

Can puberty cause eating disorders?

Puberty is often associated with eating disorders. However, it may not be the exact cause of the disorder, or it may not be the only cause of eating disorders. Other contributors include stress, bullying, or problems with self-confidence. If you have questions about eating disorders, please seek guidance from a medical professional.

What is adolescence?

Adolescence is the period of life when a child develops into an adult. There are three stages of adolescence recognized by experts, including early adolescence (10-13), middle adolescence (14-18), and late adolescence (19-23). Throughout the three stages of adolescence, a young person will typically go through physical changes, cognitive (thinking and reasoning) changes, and social changes.

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