Eating Disorders

Eating disorders: Signs your teen has a problem with eating, fitness or body image

Our society places a very high value on body image. Our lives all are impacted by the constant media messages saying our bodies should look a certain way, but the age group most affected by these messages is teens.

There is an interesting phenomenon taking place in the United States right now. They say Americans are fatter than ever, and diet-related health problems such as diabetes are occurring in younger and younger people all the time. At the same time, the media is sending messages to young people that they are not worth anything as a human being, nor can they be attractive, unless they are pin thin, like the models on television and in magazines.

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I would be willing to wager that one could visit any high school, or even middle school, in the United States and ask the girls how they feel about their bodies, and an overwhelming majority of them would have some complaint. I would bet that most of them would say they think they are overweight, even some who clearly are not. You see, girls get the idea from the media that being severely underweight is normal and even desirable.

Not only are children getting media messages about body image, but many of them grow up observing their parents or family members who worry about their weight. Because so many Americans are overweight, diet programs are everywhere. Most kids will watch one of their parents go on a diet at some point. Parents probably don't think about their kids observing their behavior while dieting, but their kids do notice. Watching a parent obsess about their weight can cause a child to do the same.

As a parent, there are many signs to watch for. Knowing what to look for is imperative because once your child develops a full-fledged eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, it is very hard to help them.

In the beginning, your child might just make comments about being fat, almost in passing. You might notice them skipping meals or picking at their food during meals. They may begin to obsess about diet and exercise. They may begin to seem withdrawn and depressed. They might avoid friends and family activities. None of these things may appear to be that bad at first, but things will slowly get worse.

Anorexic and bulimic people can't see themselves the way the rest of the world does. They look in the mirror and see fat, even when they are skin and bones. It may sound impossible, but these people suffer from such severe body dysmorphia that they actually see something that is not there when they look in the mirror. If your child is developing an eating disorder, you might notice that no matter what you tell them, they will still insist that they are overweight or unattractive.

As the disease progresses, you will notice your child losing weight. They will either display very restrictive eating behaviors, or they will eat large amounts of food and then spend a lot of time in the restroom (probably purging with laxatives or throwing up). Many times, parents do not realize there is a problem until this happens, but the child has probably been struggling with their body image for quite some time before they actually start to develop a true eating disorder.

So, who is at the highest risk? Many people are often surprised to find out the group at highest risk for developing an eating disorder is composed of very intelligent young women. They are the driven, competitive, smart girls who are concerned about getting good grades, being the best in extracurricular activities and making their parents proud of them. While these girls may appear to have it all together, they often have self-esteem problems because they feel like they can never be as perfect as they want to be. This perfectionism and self-criticism manifests itself as an eating disorder.

What is a parent to do? Talk to your kids. Don't take comments they make about their body lightly, and never, ever think your kid is "too smart" to develop something like that. If it is apparent that your child has a problem, don't waste any time getting them professional help, and don't be afraid to take drastic measures such as checking them into a rehabilitation center. They will be angry at you at the time, but they will thank you later.

By Jessica Carner