Understanding teens girls with eating disorders
Eating disorders in teenage girls may be connected to early childhood bullying and the public misconception that to be "cool" or "liked" means you must be thin and pretty. (2)
Studies show that of American elementary school girls who already read magazines, 69% of them feel magazine pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape, while 47% say that those pictures make them want to lose weight. (3)
Stats & trends in teen girls with eating disorders
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to understand teen girls suffering from various eating disorders. While it may seem like common sense that the practices associated with eating disorders are unhealthy and potentially dangerous, the brain and mind of those suffering from these conditions may not see it this way.
In many instances, teen girls may have been conditioned from a very young age to believe that they are not enough and that their body doesn't meet beauty standards.
For instance, studies continue to show that children whose parents are overly concerned about their weight are at increased risks for modeling unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. (4)
Teasing also plays a significant role in teen girls who suffer from various eating disorders. It is estimated that 40% of teens and 28% of teen girls who live in bigger bodies were teased by both their peers and family members. (5)
Unfortunately, teasing and bullying has led to an epidemic of eating disorders in teen girls. It is estimated that 13% of girls will suffer from an eating disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) during their teen years. (6,7)
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Teen girls: eating disorder signs & symptoms
A crucial part of finding treatment programs for teen girls is understanding the many signs and symptoms of disordered eating. While some teens may be more obvious in their actions, such as not eating during mealtime, others may be better at hiding their disorder. Furthermore, the teen may not even perceive her behavior as dangerous or consistent with an eating disorder, and may even view their behavior as “healthy” or “acceptable”
If you believe that your teenage daughter may be suffering from an eating disorder, you'll want to watch for the following signs and symptoms: (8)
- Prioritizing activities revolving around dieting and weight loss
- Preoccupation with weight (particularly weight gain), food intake (especially the elimination of food groups), and popular diet fads
- Extreme concern with body shape and size
- Noticeable fluctuations in weight (either up or down)
- Gastrointestinal complications
- Skin changes
- Sleep problems
- Lack of growth
- Failure to start menstruation or loss of menstrual cycle (note: menstruation while on birth control pills is not indicative of a normal menstrual cycle)
A loss of weight and menstruation should ring alarm bells, as this is an indication that the body is dramatically malnourished and in the early process of osteopenia, which can lead to osteoporosis. Once osteoporosis is present, a teen may experience a lack of proper growth and development, as well as irreversible damage to internal systems like those that regulate fertility. This condition also carries the risk of death when left untreated.
If you notice that your teen is suffering from any of the above signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, it's vital that you get them help as soon as you can.
Treating teen girls with eating disorders
When researching treatment options for teen girls with eating disorders, it is important to remember the following:
- Every eating disorder is different and may present uniquely based on the individual.
- Treatment for any co-occurring disorders, like a mental health condition, can occur at the same time as treatment for the disordered eating.
- A treatment program or care team built around a teen’s individual needs will offer the best chance at recovery.
However, with the right treatment and a tight-knit support system, recovery is possible.
The first step in finding an eating disorder treatment program for your teen is to speak with their physician. The diagnostic process will require an extensive patient assessment, a complete medical exam, and laboratory testing to see how the body had already been affected by the teen’s habits.
It may be difficult to identify providers who are trained and knowledgeable about eating disorders and disordered eating in teen girls specifically. Medical providers are not always familiar with the risks, and may even perpetuate eating disorders by a preoccupation with body mass index (BMI) and internalized weight stigma.
Therefore, it is vital that you work with providers who understand eating disorders, weight stigma and the impact of diet culture on developing teenagers.
Eating disorder treatment programs for teen girls
The best eating disorder treatment programs for teen girls provide an environment where teens can focus on their recovery with the support of a team of medical professionals. This team may include but is not limited to dietitians, counselors, therapists, recovery coaches, and other facilitators of their healing journey.
During eating disorder treatment, the teen may receive individualized treatment plans built by their care team to address each of the teen’s specific needs. Treatment aims to help teenagers stop engaging in disordered eating and harmful behaviors while also improving their physical and emotional health by addressing any underlying issues that may drive their eating disorder.
Typical treatment programs may include:
- Individual counseling
- Family counseling
- Group counseling
- Nutrition counseling and meal support
- Psychological counseling
- Medication assessment and treatment
How teen girls cope with different eating disorders
Eating disorders can cause considerable distress for those who suffer from them. Due to the stigma and fear around having certain eating disorders, some teens are afraid to tell anyone they are struggling and won’t seek out the treatment they need. (9)
Teens (and many others, even health care professionals) can normalize these behaviors, incorrectly seeing them as “healthy” or a way of coping. Teens may even try to minimize the perceived mental and physical suffering associated with eating disorders and disordered eating.
Parents may want to do all they can to support their child, but the reality is that it is incredibly difficult for a family to manage an eating disorder alone. Parents and kids alike may try their best to be helpful or understanding, but additional professional care is highly recommended.
Once treatment has begun, it is important to realize that you are an active participant in your teen’s healing process. You will want to ask questions and be as involved as you can in therapy to ensure that your teen gets the best treatment possible and to understand how you can be as helpful as possible to the recovery process. This may involve learning more about weight stigma, and diet culture and the negative impacts those two concepts have on your child’ at school and even in your home environment.
Here are a few suggestions on how to support your teen during eating disorder treatment:
- Talk with them: Be there for your teen. Make sure they know that the lines of communication are open, and you can be trusted as a safe space for speaking about what’s on their mind. In order to be a safe space, it is important to maintain a stance of non-judgement and compassionate curiosity. You may want to get help on how to position the dialogue within this framework.
- Give them encouragement and a compassionately informed reality: Help your teen have a more realistic impression of their life through compassionate conversation. Encourage them to continue on their path towards recovery one day at a time, and help them navigate any setbacks they may face.
- Set boundaries: Set clear expectations of your teen during their treatment process. Establishing healthy boundaries and working on being firm while also listening and being mindful of the individual circumstances of your teen will go a long way in aiding their healing.
- Be consistent: Do your best to be as consistent as you can in your actions and your messages. Do not let your teen or their eating disorder guide your behavior.
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How to help your teenage girl with an eating disorder
If you suspect that your teenage daughter may be struggling with an eating disorder, talk with them about your concerns. Even if your teen is hiding their eating disorder, it is likely due to them feeling ashamed or being unable to communicate their need for help appropriately. Don’t take this behavior personally. They may not even be aware their behaviors are unhealthy or consistent with an eating disorder.
Open lines of communication are the first step in helping your teen get the treatment they need. It is crucial that you take a comprehensive approach to the issue of disordered eating, as most patients benefit from a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment.
Advocate for proper care
Make sure your teen completes a thorough evaluation that takes into account any potential medical, or physical manifestations of the eating disorder. In addition, this examination should take note of any underlying or co-occurring psychiatric conditions, or psycho-social stressors. Taking stock of everything going on in your teen’s brain and body will be vital to setting a course in motion for healing.
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How to help teen girls with an eating disorder
There are many things that you can do to help a teen cope with an eating disorder.
Whether you are a parent, family member, teacher, or friend of a teen girl with a suspected eating disorder, the first step is usually recognition. It will be a difficult step, especially if the teen is in denial or unaware of their condition. If you are not well positioned to get the discussion started, it may be beneficial to call a professional well-versed in eating disorders to assist in the conversation.
Ensure that you are speaking from a place of the fullest understanding and acceptance possible of their struggle and situation. Asking for guidance on how you can be most helpful allows your loved one to be involved in taking some of those first steps. At the same time, it is important that the teen knows you will not minimize or ignore their struggle and ultimately will insist that help be provided to them.
If you or a teenager in your care is looking for eating disorder treatment, Within Health is here to help. Call now to learn about our revolutionary virtual treatment program, and our compassionate clinical care team.