Talking To Your Teen About Eating Disorders: A Parent’s Guide

The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

Being a parent to a teenager is never easy. There’s a lot to keep up with — friendships, school, after-school activities. Sometimes, navigating all these changes can lead to unexpected concerns, such as the possibility of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can be seriously harmful and even life-threatening if left untreated.

As a mom, it’s natural to want to protect and support your teen through any hardship. Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic background, or body size. So, whether your teen is living with an eating disorder or you just want to be proactive in preventing one, here are some tips for protecting your teen’s mental health and well-being.

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Identifying the Warning Signs

Eating disorders can present themselves in many ways. Here are some red flags to watch out for:

  • Changes in eating habits: Is your teen refusing meals, suddenly adhering to strict diets, or skipping entire food groups? Are they making excessive excuses to avoid eating, especially out with friends? Do they appear secretive about their eating habits?
  • Extreme focus on weight, body shape, or food: Frequent talk of dieting, negative body comments, persistent counting of calories, or obsessing over their appearance may be a cause for concern.
  • Compensatory behaviours: Does your teen disappear to the bathroom right after meals or engage in intense exercise regimes? These may be attempts to “cancel out” food they’ve eaten.
  • Emotional shifts: Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental health concerns. If your teen becomes increasingly withdrawn, irritable, anxious, or depressed, they may be facing mental health challenges.
  • Physical changes: Is your teen losing or gaining weight rapidly, even though they are not trying to? Do they consistently feel cold or complain of stomach pain?

It’s important to remember these are just potential signs — having one or two of these traits doesn’t automatically guarantee an eating disorder. It’s also possible for individuals to experience disordered eating behaviours that don’t fully meet the criteria for a formal eating disorder diagnosis while still requiring support and professional intervention.

Opening the Conversation

Talking about eating disorders is never easy, but it’s essential. Remember, your teen may feel confused, embarrassed, or ashamed, and they may not readily admit they have a problem. 

Here’s how to approach the conversation in a supportive, non-confrontational way:

  • Pick a good time: Find a quiet moment when both of you are free from distractions. You should avoid bringing it up during times of stress or conflict.
  • Start with concern: Use “I” statements: “I’ve noticed you’re not eating much lately, and I’m worried about you.” Let them know you care and want to help.
  • Be open and understanding: Listen without judgement, validating their feelings, even if you don’t understand everything. Focus on what they’re trying to communicate beneath their behaviours.
  • Normalize seeking help: Reassure your teen that struggling with mental health and body image is nothing to feel ashamed of and that you are there to support them in finding help.

When to See an Eating Disorder Therapist

If you suspect your teen might be struggling with an eating disorder, seeking professional help as soon as possible is crucial. Specialists can offer guidance to your teen to address disordered eating patterns, underlying emotional issues, and any necessary medical attention. 

Remember, eating disorders are complex and require specialised expertise for adequate treatment and recovery. Online platforms like BetterHelp offer therapists who specialise in treating eating disorders, body image issues, and other mental health concerns.

Creating a Supportive Environment

In addition to professional help, you can cultivate an environment at home that promotes healing:

  • Be your teen’s teammate: Remind them you’ll face this together, not as adversaries.
  • Avoid body talk: Limit comments about your own or others’ appearances. Help shift the focus away from bodies and toward qualities like creativity, kindness, and humour.
  • Eat regular meals together: Shared meals are chances to model healthy relationships with food and offer connection.
  • Be understanding of relapses: Recovery isn’t a straight line. Be patient and encouraging, even if there are setbacks.

Finding the Right Support

While your love and understanding are key to your teen’s recovery, reaching out for professional help is incredibly important. There are resources and experts available to provide specialised care:

  • Therapists: Eating disorder specialists are trained to address the complex mental and emotional components of these conditions. They often use therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family-based therapy (FBT), which have proven to be effective in treating eating disorders.
  • Dietitians: A registered dietitian who specialises in eating disorders can help your teen develop a healthy meal plan and re-establish their relationship with food. They offer individualised guidance on making sure your teen has a balanced and nourishing diet to support both their physical and mental recovery.
  • Medical professionals: A doctor can evaluate any physical complications that may have arisen from an eating disorder and address them if necessary. These professionals monitor vital signs and can assess whether additional medical care is needed.
  • Support groups: Groups created especially for those living with eating disorders and their loved ones can be comforting and informative. Connecting with others who understand what you’re going through provides shared strength and hope.

Your teen’s pediatrician or primary care doctor is a good place to start, as they may be able to recommend local eating disorder specialists. You can also explore these trusted resources:

It’s crucial to find a therapist who your teen feels comfortable with. Patience and persistence will go a long way in providing the best possible support.

With early detection, professional support, and a caring environment, many people with eating disorders make progress and even full recovery. Your openness, patience, and willingness to educate yourself can play a crucial role in your teen’s journey toward health and a joyful, food-positive relationship with their body.

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