Eating disorders in teens: What parents should look out for

By: Osler Health International
Posted on: 15 Nov 2023

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background. However, adolescence is a vulnerable period when these disorders often emerge, particularly in girls. In a Singapore-based study published in the Singapore Medical Journal, the average onset age of eating disorders is 14. In fact, females as young as 12 years old are at risk of developing an eating disorder.

When signs and symptoms of eating disorders start to show in your teenager, understanding the importance of awareness is the first step in addressing this issue. It can be hard for parents to identify eating disorders, but by liaising with trusted health professionals, they can be guided to the right support and treatment for their teens.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders (ED) are not simply about food; they are complex mental health conditions associated with abnormal eating behaviours that can impact the overall biopsychosocial well-being and functionality of those affected.

The majority of eating disorders entail an intense fixation on body image, body weight, and food, resulting in harmful eating habits that adversely affect the nutritional status, growth, and development of young individuals. Additionally, certain eating disorders may not exclusively revolve around concerns related to body image but can encompass behaviours hindering weight gain or exhibiting a compulsive urge to prioritise health and fitness.

What are the types of eating disorders?

Anorexia Nervosa

This is a common type of eating disorder, and one many people are familiar with. It involves an intense fear of gaining weight, resulting in severe food restriction and self-imposed starvation. It is the most common type of eating disorder in Singapore. Teens with anorexia may have a distorted body image, seeing themselves as overweight even when underweight.

Symptoms may include extreme thinness, preoccupation with weight, food, calories, and dieting. They may also have a hard time maintaining a body weight appropriate to their age, height, and build.

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterised by episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise, or laxative use. Unlike anorexia, individuals with bulimia often maintain a normal weight, making it harder to detect. However, purging behaviours can affect the teen physically.

Complications associated with this eating disorder can manifest as an irritated and painful throat, enlargement of salivary glands, erosion of tooth enamel, dental decay, acid reflux, inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, profound dehydration, and disruptions in hormonal balance.

Binge-eating Disorder

Teens with binge-eating disorder regularly consume more food than most people. They usually eat quickly, eat when they are stressed or upset, and feel like they can’t control their eating, even when they are feeling full. Their binges also occur at least once a week or several times a month. As a result, they may feel guilty, ashamed, or even bad about themselves after the binge.

The most common side effect of binge eating may be increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. However, those with a healthy weight can also have this disorder.

There are many other types of eating disorders, including orthorexia. To understand more, please read this article on orthorexia by Dr Foong.

Tips for parents to help and support teens with eating disorders

In navigating your teen’s experience with an eating disorder, it’s crucial to establish a healthy support system, offering the assistance necessary for their recovery. Providing the right professional support is essential for helping your teen overcome the challenges associated with any type of eating disorder.

Open communication

Fostering open communication is fundamental in creating an environment where your teen feels safe expressing their feelings and concerns. Actively listening without judgement allows them to freely share their thoughts, fostering comfortable trust and understanding. As a result, this helps you know when they may be struggling with their eating disorder and determine how you can support them during their difficult times.

Avoid shaming

Steer clear of making comments about your teen’s appearance that might come off as a form of body shaming. Instead, focus on cultivating a positive and healthy lifestyle, emphasising the importance of overall well-being over an idealised body image.

Encourage healthy habits

Promoting a balanced approach to nutrition and physical activity is key. Encourage your teen to participate in activities they enjoy, fostering a positive relationship with both food and exercise. That way, they can focus on their overall well-being with a more holistic approach to health.

Be patient and supportive

Recognise that recovery from an eating disorder is a gradual process. Exercise patience and unwavering support with your teen, celebrating small victories along the way. Avoid imposing unrealistic expectations on your teen’s progress, understanding that healing takes time.

Seek professional help

If you suspect your teen is grappling with an eating disorder, consult a doctor for teenagers who can help. Early intervention is paramount for successful treatment, and an experienced family doctor can provide guidance and support tailored to your teen’s needs.

Should you decide to visit a family care clinic in Singapore, they can also work with you and other members of your family to provide knowledge and tools to support your teen with an eating disorder.

If you are keen to read more, please read this article by Dr Neil Forrest on teen physical, mental or sexual health.

Learn more about mental health conditions and how to support your loved ones with guides on anxiety and panic attacks and mental health red flags in teens.

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