Anorexia Nervosa in Teens: A Parent's Guide

Anorexia Nervosa in Teens: A Guide for Parents

Anorexia nervosa is perhaps the most well-known eating disorder, often depicted in movies or talked about in mainstream media. However, when you have a child suffering from this devastating disorder, it can be hard to know how to help. 

In this guide, you will learn the multiple characteristics of anorexia and treatment options to move your child toward the path of recovery. 

Understanding Anorexia Nervosa in Teens

Early detection of eating disorders is an important factor in recovery. Research shows that those who receive prompt treatment for eating disorder symptoms typically have better outcomes.1 Knowing the signs and characteristics of anorexia nervosa can help promote swift intervention. 

Recognizing the Early Signs 

Many teens begin by showing more signs of body dissatisfaction. They may talk about wanting to lose weight or become preoccupied with the appearance of certain parts of their body.

Frequently accompanying body dissatisfaction is a heightened focus on nutrition, an aspect that is often underestimated as a disordered behavior. It can easily be mistaken as a positive effort to enhance one’s health. 

However, engaging in practices such as dieting, calorie counting, or eliminating entire food groups should not be dismissed, as they can serve as early indicators of an underlying eating disorder.

Behavioral Characteristics 

It is common to see some shifts in attitudes and behaviors toward food in adolescents with anorexia. Many teens will become very uncomfortable eating with other people. This may mean avoiding social functions where food will be served or avoiding family dinners. 

The malnutrition associated with the eating disorder may worsen depressive symptoms and decrease their motivation to participate in school or spend time with friends. 

Another behavioral characteristic of anorexia includes rigidity with food choices. They may refuse to eat certain foods because they do not deem it to be “healthy.” 

People with eating disorders typically struggle with a change in food-related plans. For example, they may become upset if they try to order a menu item at a restaurant and learn that this particular dish is no longer available. 

Physical Indicators

Those suffering from eating disorders are at risk for serious, life-threatening medical complications. It is important to be aware of the physical signs to identify medical problems early. Some physical characteristics of anorexia nervosa include:2

  • Weight loss
  • Changes in blood pressure or heart rate
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slowed digestion
  • Blood sugar issues
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Cold intolerance
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of a menstrual period
  • Heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle spasms
  • Dental caries
  • Bone fractures 

The Importance of Timely Identification

Emotional Characteristics of Anorexia Nervosa 

Lesser-known signs of an eating disorder include mood changes, with adolescents grappling with anorexia often experiencing heightened agitation, anxiety, or depression. While the connection between encouraging increased food intake and triggering these emotional shifts seems clear, it’s essential to recognize the biological component at play as well.

Malnutrition can affect the brain’s ability to process information. People with anorexia may seem to become irrationally upset when discussing food, which can be a direct result of inadequate energy to the brain. 

Anger is also a physical indicator of low blood sugar. Anorexia can also worsen underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety, depressed mood, or isolation. 

Social Withdrawal and Anorexia 

Unfortunately, social withdrawal is common in teens with anorexia. Most social events involve food, which can be intimidating for someone with an eating disorder. They may feel unsafe eating foods outside their normal routine for fear other people are watching what they eat. As a result, many anorexia sufferers may choose to stay home to avoid an uncomfortable situation.

Likewise, teens may avoid certain people whom they fear may make triggering remarks. Any comment related to body appearance, dieting, nutrition, or even food can increase feelings of shame or judgment about eating. 

If certain friends or family members frequently make these comments, the person suffering from the eating disorder may try to avoid any situation in which they may spend time with these people. 

Impact on Academic Performance 

Many teens with anorexia also suffer from perfectionism. As a result, they may not have an immediate or obvious decrease in academic performance despite severe restriction. However, over time, the consequences of malnutrition will begin to affect their ability to perform well at school. 

Even the most intelligent, driven children will experience fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes that will result in decreased academic performance unless they are getting enough energy from food.

Seeking Treatment for Anorexia Nervosa

Family support plays a key role in helping teens heal from an eating disorder. Parents can help their teens by creating a supportive home environment and getting their children professional help.

The Role of Parental Support 

First, they can provide an environment of safety, security, and love within their home environment. Creating space for teens to express their feelings without fear of judgment or dismissal can help them heal from their disorder.

Accountability is another vital role in eating disorder recovery. Parents are responsible for reinforcing their child’s treatment goals when they are at home. This is, without a doubt, a very challenging aspect of treatment both for parents and the teen. 

Working with a therapist specializing in eating disorders can equip caregivers with the skills needed to help their child through meals and snacks. 

Professional Intervention and Therapies

Psychotherapy is an effective treatment option for anorexia nervosa, especially when working with a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. Sessions may include a variety of therapeutic modalities to help your child develop healthier thought patterns and learn new coping skills.

While individual therapy is essential to treatment, family therapy is also a helpful resource. A family therapist can help each family member learn how to effectively communicate with each other and resolve conflicts that will inevitably arise when battling an eating disorder. 

Nutrition therapy is another integral aspect of treatment for anorexia. A registered dietitian can help by providing an individualized meal plan to improve malnutrition. They will also provide education to correct misinformation about nutrition and promote a healthy relationship with food. 

Medication is often needed during treatment to help manage underlying mental illnesses that are contributing to the eating disorder, such as depression or anxiety.

Building a Supportive Environment at Home 

There are several practical tips to create a recovery-focused home environment. First, use neutral terms when talking about food and appearance. 

A common characteristic of anorexia nervosa is black-and-white thinking around food. For example, their mind may register that all foods are either “good” or “bad.” Parents can support their child’s recovery by supporting the inclusion of all foods into one’s eating patterns. 

Parents can also establish clear boundaries and expectations that support recovery goals. This can vary significantly depending on the family. 

Keep mealtimes light can help reduce stress when eating. Food is already very challenging for someone suffering from an eating disorder, so it can be helpful to discuss fun, interesting topics over meals. Likewise, avoid heavy topics as stress can negatively impact one’s ability to complete their meal. 

Minimizing unplanning food outings or changes in plans can also help reduce stress for teens in recovery. While flexibility with food is the ultimate goal of recovery, it can take time to build up to that. 

A supportive home environment is invaluable for recovery, and equally crucial is seeking professional help. A treatment team can make a world of difference in your child’s health and long-term recovery. Plus, working with eating disorder specialists can remove some of the burden of caring for a sick child alone.  

Aster Springs offers a variety of services to provide a comprehensive treatment experience that is sensitive to your child’s individual needs. Find a location near you



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