Article written by: Audrey Bristol
I was recently reflecting on psychoeducation groups I have run for teenagers living with some form of depression or anxiety and was struck with the memory of conversations I would hear during breaks. While during group we would talk about anxiety and depression and how to cope; outside of group they were talking about body insecurities, skipping meals, and Instagram or tiktok influencers promoting unhealthy ideals that would cause red flags to rise. With the pressures teens face about their bodies from other teens, family, coaches, other adults, and social media, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of checking in on your teen’s health.
Over 50% of teenage girls and 30% of teenage boys use unhealthy behaviors to control their weight such as smoking, skipping meals, vomiting, taking laxatives, and overexercising (Neumark). The consequences of engaging in these behaviors at such a young age are extensive including osteoporosis, heart damage or failure, tooth decay, malnutrition, hormone imbalances, gastrointestinal issues, etc. Not to mention mental health concerns including development of an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, suicidality, substance abuse, and more.
Parents often tell me they had no idea things had gotten so serious; that they wish they had known what to look for. Below is a list of possible signs your teen is struggling with their body image, disordered eating, or maybe even an eating disorder.
They talk negatively about themselves constantly.
This is could look like specifically talking negatively about their appearance, food choices or in general being highly self-critical. Most teens feel some sort of discomfort about their bodies or the way they look due this being a time of exploration and puberty. This could look more extreme when they seem to be preoccupied with things like cosmetic surgery, certain body parts, or a meal they ate. I specially look for phrases like “if only my legs were a little thinner” or “I can’t believe I ate that”.
They just seem off.
This is a very broad statement, but most parents get a sense when their teen is possibly lying or being sneaky. Eating disorder behaviors thrive in secrecy. Skipping events such as dinners or social situations could be a sign of discomfort with eating. Avoiding places or friends and family could mean that the teen may be isolating due to feeling so uncomfortable in their body or possibly they are engaging in unhealthy behaviors. Look for changes in your teens behaviors that just seem off and check in with them about this. “I notice you haven’t been eating dinner with us lately, what’s going on?” “I’ve noticed you’re not hanging around your friends as much. I love you and I’m concerned. What’s going on?”
They are dieting.
There is no a reason a teenager should be putting themselves on a diet, especially one that a doctor or registered dietitian did not directly recommend. If they are eating differently or restricting meals or avoiding certain foods then this is likely a diet. Healthy eating should never restrict an entire food group unless there is an allergy, religious, environmental, or other medical reason that is known. Significant food restriction is a sign that your teen may be engaging in unhealthy behaviors to change their body. Teens exploring vegetarianism may be a health choice and may not be. Be curious about your teen’s food choices if they are dieting or restricting.
They are overexercising.
Movement and activities have many benefits including social connection, mental, and physical health but taken to the extreme this great thing can quickly become dangerous. Compulsive exercise is described as “exercise that interferes with important activities, occurs at inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or occurs when the individual exercises despite injury or other medical complications” (“Warning Signs and Symptoms”, 2020). Teens that are putting exercising before family, friends, or school work may feel the need to exercise is priority and this obsession can be damaging to their mind and body.
By recognizing the signs that indicate a growing struggle with body image and disordered eating, we can help teens manage these behaviors and work on rebuilding a healthier relationship with food and their body before they worsen. While, we cannot take away the discomfort of going through puberty and societal pressures, we can help uplift and support a positive relationship with our bodies.
If you or someone you know seems to be struggling with disordered eating or body image do not hesitate to help them reach out for more support. Seeking professional help through a therapist, registered dietitian, or medical provider can help take steps to having a positive relationship with your body and yourself. We can provide support to you or your loved ones.
For more information on disordered eating, visit the National Eating Disorders Association’s website or call their helpline at 800-931-2237.
Neumark Sztainer, D. (2005). I’m, Like, SO Fat! New York: The Guilford Press. pp. 5.
Warning Signs and Symptoms. (2020). Retrieved 13 November 2020, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms
Audrey is a Licensed Social Worker who works with teens and young adults struggling with body image, low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. She is passionate about honoring health at every size and helping teens and young adults to embrace their strengths, learn to overcome obstacles, and provides support and encouragement along the way. Teen and young adult years can be very challenging. Audrey provides a compassionate, clinically solid approach to therapy and reaching struggling teens. Visit Audrey’s bio to learn more about her and to reach out to her directly for help and support through therapy at Denver Metro Counseling email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Denver Metro Counseling is a group of clinicians who provide therapeutic support for teens, adults, parents, and families. We help people build positive relationships with themselves and others.