Skipping meals. Forcing themselves to throw up. Obsessively exercising until total exhaustion. This is the scary reality for many teenagers, especially young females, struggling with body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
Research shows that almost 10 in every 100 teenage girls suffer from an eating disorder of some variety. Many of these girls feel pressure from the media, friends or classmates to look a certain way or fit a particular mold. Too often, girls as well as boys are led to believe their value relies more on appearance than their character or their abilities. This thinking can lead to a dangerous infatuation with their bodies, dysmorphia and, subsequently, an eating disorder.
Often times, parents fail to recognize these disorders. Sometimes people even misread the situation and praise teens for losing weight or becoming “healthier” even though they may be practicing habits that are very bad for their physical and emotional well-being.
Fortunately, more discussion occurs these days about how and why these conditions burden so many young people. However, not a lot of material out there has been designed to help parents talk to their teenagers about this topic. It’s important to educate your child on the dangers of these disorders just as you would warn them about drunk driving or smoking. Anyone is susceptible, and could potentially face serious physical and emotional consequences.
Defining body dysmorphia, eating disorders
The term dysmorphia may sound intimidating or unfamiliar. However, it’s important to understand what it means in order to understand eating disorders.
Body dysmorphia refers to a person having an inaccurate image of their own body and the negative mental effects that occur for that person as a result. The person sees their own body as different than it actually is, or believes one particular element of their body is far beyond normal proportions and therefore something they should be very concerned about.
This can lead to several different kinds of eating disorders. The most common are:
- Bulimia is a condition in which body dysmorphia leads an individual to feel depressed and overeat, then force themselves to throw up or fast for an extended period to avoid gaining weight.
- Anorexia is characterized by dangerously low weight as a result of refusing to eat or excessive exercise.
Both disorders are extremely serious, can cause lifelong damage to one’s body, be life threatening.
Another common disorder not discussed as often is binge eating disorder. Similar to bulimia in it involves eating large amounts, but it differs in that it does not involve throwing up or fasting. It may seem odd for an individual who believes they are too large to overeat and gain a lot of weight. However, often times eating disorders are inextricably linked to low self-esteem. Those who feel they are overweight may experience depression and cope by eating lots of food and gaining more weight. This can lead to a hard to break cycle of self-sabotage.
Prevent the problem
One way you can start preventing these issues early on is by creating a positive home environment where your child doesn’t feel excessive pressure to conform to a perfect body type. By cooking balanced meals and not scrutinizing your child’s weight, you can help them develop a positive relationship with their body. If you value their accomplishments and celebrate their abilities, they will understand their body is not all that makes them valuable. Making sure they understand their worth is not tied to their appearance helps prevent a problematic relationship with food and body weight.
Eating meals together helps create a healthy relationship with food within your family. Sitting down to eat as a group helps children develop consistent eating habits, and demonstrates to them the importance of eating regularly. Another helpful measure is making sure food in your home is balanced and healthy. This sets a good example of what it’s like to treat your body with care and respect.
As we’ve said, it’s important to make sure your child eats healthy so they can be strong and happy. However, some teens fail to consider their own personal nutrition, and may have bad habits like only indulging in junk food or refusing to be active. How do you draw the line between guilting them over this and helping them set healthy boundaries?
Start by not creating so much pressure or emphasis on diet and exercise that your child believes it’s the only or most important thing. Aim for language targeting the bad food as the issue, not your child. For example:
“Hey, Greg. I noticed you’ve been drinking a lot of soda recently. I’m a little concerned. Soda is very high in sugar and certain chemicals. It’s not very good for you, even though it may taste good. I want you to be healthy and take good care of yourself, so I’m asking you to limit yourself to one every few days.”
Start a conversation
Education is one of the best methods of prevention. By addressing the topic of eating disorders before it potentially becomes an issue, you help your children recognize when they are adopting unhealthy habits. It never hurts to guide them to increase their awareness because messages from outside sources can really affect their perceptions of their own body.
To educate your children on the dangers of body dysmorphia, try beginning with a heart to heart about body image. Don’t be afraid to sit down and talk to them honestly about these topics. Try something like this:
“I love you and I want to make sure you love yourself, too. Do you ever wish you looked like someone else or feel insecure about your appearance? Have you ever taken measures to combat that insecurity outside of normal diet and exercise? I won’t be angry with you; I just want to be sure you’re OK.”
Being proactive to help teens understand what eating disorders are and how they could potentially be affected is important. By addressing these topics and creating a safe space to discuss them, you build a safety net for your teen. This helps if they ever feel they are slipping down a dark path regarding body image and self-esteem.
Struggling with body dysmorphia
Have you noticed your teenager dealing with issues surrounding their weight or body image? Maybe its a dramatic weight loss or another behavior that sends a signal of concern.
If you’re not sure what to look for, first pay attention to how much and what your child is eating within 24 hours. Make sure they are eating about three balanced meals a day. Also note how much time they spend exercising to see if they are stretching their body to an unhealthy extent.
It can be hard to confront your teen about a highly personal issue like an eating disorder. You may feel overwhelmed or scared you’ll say the wrong thing. The best approach: assume nothing and to be clear that your goal is to help them, not make them feel shame or guilt. Remind them that your biggest concern is their health and well-being.
Where can you go and who can you talk to when you know your teenager is suffering from an eating disorder?
- First, talk to a doctor to find out if your child’s disorder has caused any issues that need immediate attention.
- Then, reach out to a mental health professional for a proper diagnosis. Potential treatment, such as medication, regular therapy, and single or group counseling, could follow.
- You may need to monitor your child’s nutritional activities to ensure that they are staying healthy and taking care of themselves for some time after.
If diagnosed with body dysmorphia or an eating disorder, your child may have some trouble processing it. Be patient with them. Remind them you want to help them heal and grow from the experience. Perhaps call a family meeting to make sure all members of the house are on the same page. Your teenager needs a safe space where they can get better, so it’s important to make sure they are not facing any triggering actions from the rest of the family.
Even if you don’t think your child might be suffering from dysmorphia or an eating disorder, show love and support. To prevent the development of these issues, remind your child they are valued for their accomplishments, personality and skills, not just their appearance.
If you can, educate your child as much as possible on the media’s perception of body image and the possible signs and risks of eating disorders. Be patient with any teen struggling to overcome the serious physical and emotional side effects of these conditions. Overall, show all the love and support you can to help your teenager get through this challenging time.
About the author
Andy Earle is a researcher who studies parent-teen communication and adolescent risk behaviors. He is the co-founder of talkingtoteens.com and host of the Talking to Teens podcast, a free weekly talk show for parents of teenagers.
Body image photo: ©Siniehina / Adobe Stock.
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