Understanding your teen with anorexia nervosa

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Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a difficult illness to deal with—and not just for the person struggling with the disorder. AN can engulf entire families attempting to help and understand the individuals with the disorder. 

But if your child is struggling with anorexia nervosa, there are some ways that may make it easier to understand and empathize with their battle.

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Learn the effects of anorexia

The first step toward understanding a child struggling with anorexia nervosa is educating yourself about AN and other eating disorders. After a general understanding of the disorder, you can then learn how it particularly affects your child. The disorder can have a number of harmful impacts on someone – and not all of them are outwardly visible.

Anorexia nervosa is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, or both, leaving your child with the emotional implications of experiencing mood and/or anxiety , along with their eating disorder. This could mean a withdrawal or isolation from their friends, or discomfort around any type of social activity, but especially those that might involve food.

Your child is likely preoccupied with the ideas of food, body weight, and shape; these thoughts can strongly dictate much of what they do or don’t do. Preoccupations with food, weight, and shape likely exist with negative self-image and poor self-esteem, which may misguide them into believing that they aren’t good enough, attractive enough, “skinny” enough, or other negative self perceptions 

Learning more about the physical and psychological effects of anorexia will go a long way toward helping you understand what your child is experiencing while navigating this disorder—and hopefully, it can help develop more empathy.

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Open up communication

Empathy is an important aspect of communication for talking to anyone, particularly a child who is struggling with anorexia. Conversations about sensitive topics like eating disorders— especially with people who are dealing with an eating disorder and their families —can be tricky.

It might be helpful to form a general plan for how you want to approach the conversation. Think about what you want to say, and what you hope to accomplish with the conversation. 

Especially if this is the first time you’re speaking to your child about the issue, you may want to open with an “I” statement, such as: I feel like something is bothering you lately. Can we talk about it? It’s also important to keep in mind, your child might not even understand why they are doing what they do. If the disorder creeps in slowly, they might not have a full understanding they have a problem. Depending on how young they are, they may never have even heard of an eating disorder.

Keep an open mind

It’s also important to keep an open mind during this, or any, conversation with a teen who has AN. Use what you’ve learned about anorexia to ask questions, and really listen to their answers. Good places to start include, “How long have you been feeling this way?” or even, simply, “How are you feeling?” It is also helpful to think through potential questions you want to ask. Adults can have difficulty understanding how teens think in general, but it can be very confusing and frustrating to try to understand a teenager who has anorexia nervosa.

And, if you can, try to stay mindful about the words you’re using, or the topics you’re focusing on. A statement like, “You’re not eating enough,” may come from a genuine place of concern, but it can sound accusatory, putting your child on the defensive. The same holds true for commenting on their body or their weight or behaviors you know they act on as part of their disorder.

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Avoid lecturing or passing judgments

Many parents fall into the trap of lecturing their child on the dangers of eating disorders, or emphasizing their concern, rather than letting their child speak from their perspective. This can result in a teen with AN to shut you out or react defensively – the opposite of helpful. Allow your child to openly and honestly express themselves, and attempt to create an atmosphere where this is possible. The thought process of your teen with AN might seem confusing so your natural instinct could be to solve their problem. In this case it is helpful to listen even if you don’t understand, so there is some communication between you and the person.

Indeed, there may be resistance even if you do everything as thoughtfully as possible. Having a family member with an eating disorder, especially a child, is difficult for everyone involved. It’s important, in those moments, to remember everything you’ve learned about AN, how it manifests in your child, and everything your child is going through. Take a deep breath, and start again.

Building the type of rapport with your child where they feel comfortable expressing themselves around you or even just know that they can talk to you, if they need to, is a paramount part of the recovery journey.

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Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Marcin, A. (2017, March 4). Eating disorders and teens: How to talk about it. Healthline. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-talk-to-your-teen-about-eating-disorders 
  2. Gordon, S. (2021, November 19). How to talk to your teen about eating disorders. Verywell Family. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-to-talk-to-kids-and-teens-about-eating-disorders-5198352 
  3. 10 helpful things to say to someone with an eating disorder. Beat. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/your-stories/osfed/10-things-say-someone-with-an-eating-disorder/

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