Teens and Eating Disorders: Triggers to Watch For
We encourage parents of children and adolescents making these life transitions to be vigilant for early signs of eating disorders.
“Children and adolescents who are high-achieving, perfectionists and who have highly sensitive temperaments are generally at a higher risk than other children for developing an eating disorder,” said Julie Holland, MHS, certified eating disorders specialist and chief marketing officer of Eating Recovery Center. “For these individuals, unhealthy coping mechanisms may be utilized to manage the stressors associated with significant life changes.”
Research has shown that life changes, such as the transitions to middle school, high school or college, can serve as triggers that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder. A 2012 study from the Journal of Clinical Nursing found that significant transitional events, as well as a lack of support following traumatic life events, could serve as eating disorder triggers.
Researchers identified school transitions as one of the six main factors that triggered eating disorders among the individuals who participated in the study. School transition experiences such as adapting to a new environment, meeting increased academic demands, struggling with social pressures and grappling with the physiological changes that occur during adolescence can create a perfect storm in which an individual with a highly sensitive temperament or a genetic predisposition for an eating disorder may turn to disordered eating behaviors as an anxiety management tool or coping mechanism.
o help parents manage their children’s transitions to new school environments, Eating Recovery Center highlights five back to school tips to help parents promote healthy attitudes about food and body shape and size.
Back to School Tips for Parents
- Look for discreet warning signs. Although weight loss can be an indicator of disordered eating, it may not be immediately apparent. A child may be displaying signs of an eating disorder if his or her schoolwork and grades begin to suffer, if he or she becomes socially withdrawn and increasingly anxious, tired and lethargic. Parents should also be aware if their child begins wearing roomier or layered clothing, even on warm days.
- Avoid comments about your child’s body shape or size. When shopping for new school clothes avoid commenting on your child’s weight or body size and instead focus on his or her preferences regarding color, style, etc.
- Have an honest conversation about peer pressure and the dangers of replacing food calories with alcohol calories if your son or daughter is getting ready to make the move to college. Discuss the physical consequences of disordered eating and drinking behaviors, such as liver damage from excessive alcohol consumption or the significant internal damage poor nutrition can cause.
- Remind your teenage athlete not to overdo his or her training in an effort to make a high school sports team. Watch for signs of over-exercise, such as sports preparation when he or she is injured or sick, or exercise that significantly interferes with daily activities and schoolwork.
- Be a positive body role model. When helping an adolescent recover from the body-focused bullying that can sometimes accompany going back to school, a parent who has positive body image will have far more credibility than one who consistently criticizes his or her own looks.
“It is important to remember that what triggers an eating disorder may not be what perpetuates it,” said Holland. “Though school transition pressures may have precipitated an eating disorder, the factors that enable its continuation are often complex. Early intervention and treatment from qualified eating disorders professionals are essential to maximize opportunities for lasting recovery.”