A Pediatrician Explains: What Parents Need to Know About Eating Disorders
May 11, 2023
The teen years can be tough. If your child is in middle school or high school, you might notice they feel pressure to look a certain way.
They might even start to skip meals or try to lose too much weight, too quickly. For some teens, these behaviors out of control until they develop a dangerous eating disorder.
The good news is you can help your teen avoid—or recover from—eating disorders.
Learn more. Read this helpful Q&A with Dr. Mary Strength, a pediatrician in north Texas.
What is the typical age for developing an eating disorder?
By far, the majority of people diagnosed with an eating disorder are ages 12 to 25 years.
Teenage girls and young women make up about 90% of all people treated for eating disorders.
What are the most common types of eating disorders?
The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.
Many times, I have seen patients have more than one eating disorder—they overlap and shift from one to another.
What are some common symptoms of an eating disorder?
Most of the patients I have diagnosed with an eating disorder were brought to my attention by an observant parent, who noted their child’s unexplained weight loss.
When teens have unexplained weight loss, I order full laboratory testing.
If a teen loses their appetite or loses weight because of an emotional issue, depression, or anxiety, I will recommend mental health screening in addition to lab tests.
Other signs of an eating disorder might include:
- Intense fear of gaining weight.
- Frequently checking the mirror for “flaws.”
- Eating tiny portions.
- Refusing to eat.
- Hoarding and hiding food.
- Eating in secret.
- Spending time in the bathroom after eating.
- Cutting out entire food groups (no sugar, no carbs, no dairy, no meat).
- Avoiding friends.
- Hiding weight loss under loose clothes.
- Lack of emotion.
- Mood swings.
- Extreme anxiety about sticking to routines.
- Over-exercising to burn calories.
What is body image? How does it relate to eating disorders?
During the puberty years, a child’s emotional, mental, and physical identity is being defined. This process brings about many changes, and that can cause turmoil.
As teens develop, they are fragile and can be susceptible to self-doubt about judgment from other teens. They want to fit in, and some will do whatever it takes to look and act like others.
When that means losing weight, the pressure can lead to eating disorders.
How can I help to promote healthy body image?
One important step is to model good behavior and thoughts toward food and nutrition. Don’t label foods “good” and “bad.”
In addition, let your child know that mental and emotional health is important, and that getting help is OK.
How are eating disorders treated?
To help a teen with an eating disorder recover, I treat the whole patient. That means addressing their mental, emotional, and physical health.
Treatment usually includes monitoring their overall physical health, monitoring their weight, and connecting them to a mental health provider.
I think my child has an eating disorder. What should I do?
Listening with empathy is the best way to keep lines of communication open with your teen. Let them know you care about them and want to support their health during adolescence. Ask questions about how they feel, but do not make comments about their body.
Don’t judge them, but stay concerned. Eating disorders are serious—they are not just a “phase” that will go away on its own.
Above all, get help from your child’s doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, and nutritionist.
Carelon Behavioral Health is here to help you with behavioral health treatment for eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and more.
You do not need approval for individual, family, or group therapy. Also, you do not need a referral from your regular doctor.
English/Spanish interpreter services available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
HEALTHfirst STAR Medicaid: 1-800-945-4644
KIDSfirst CHIP: 1-800-945-4644
KIDSfirst CHIP Perinate: 1-888-814-2352
NOTE: The provided content is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Consult your individual provider for any specific concerns or questions.
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