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Understanding Eating Disorders in Teenagers – what can we do? 

I am writing this blog in recognition of Eating Disorders Awareness week (1st-7th March 2021).  My own personal experience of disordered eating and the support I offer to the teens in my practice has led me to want to share some information which may be helpful to you. 

The information below is not to be substituted for medical help and guidance. If you have real concerns about any of the information I share below then please contact your GP or other medical professional.  I have also listed at the end of this blog, a list of helpful organisations and contacts which may be of support to you or a member of your family if you would like more support or guidance on this issue. 

What is an Eating Disorder? 

An eating disorder involves a disturbance of eating habits or weight-control behaviour which results in impairment to physical health or which affects the person’s psychological and social functioning (Mental Health First Aid England, 2017). They are estimated to affect between 600,000 and 725,000 people in the UK. Of this number, according to the Hospital Episode Statistics data for NHS Hospitals in England, during the period between February 2015 and January 2016, of the 2703 people admitted to hospital for an eating disorder, 91% of admissions were female. The most common age for a patient being admitted to hospital for an eating disorder was 15 years old. 

Why are teenagers vulnerable? 

People developing eating disorders are characterised by an over-evaluation of their body shape and weight, measuring their self-worth on their ability to control these factors through management of their eating. 

The teenage years are a vulnerable time due to the developing teenage brain. What is significant is the increasing influence not only of their peer groups, but of the pervasive, relentless influences of social media ‘influencers’ and celebrity figures representing unhealthy unrealistic perfection.  These images and ‘looks’ our teens struggle to rationalise as ‘not real’, even though they know logically they are not. 

Add in the stresses of the last years pandemic, teens being restricted from doing what they need to do, their outlets, developing their independence, spending time outside of the home and engaging in normal structures and routines and the increase of screen use and it is understandable how challenging it has become for the separation of what is real life and what is not for our young people. 

Are eating disorders a conscious decision on the part of a teenager? 

I truly believe not always. It can be a gradual process, one which develops over a period of time, and often in response to other stressful situations. 

I was never formally diagnosed as having an ‘eating disorder’ but I began to control my eating during my teenage years to cope with the stresses of emotional bullying at school, and the chipping away at my self-confidence.   

When we are at school, expected to go in and face the people we would rather not see, every single day, life can gain a sense of being out of control, and our brains will look for something it can control, to help us feel more certain, feel ‘better’.  My controlled eating was not a way of fixating on my weight or how I looked, more as a symptom of my anxiety.  So, when I developed an aversion of food that I believed could give me food poisoning and make me sick, I became adept at managing what I did eat that I deemed to be ‘safe’, that was how my disordered eating panned out.  I lost a lot of weight and ended up at the doctors being monitored by the nurse and having to consciously explore what I could and would eat to help me put on weight. 

I was lucky. The early intervention, plus a goal of reaching a target weight to go on a much-anticipated holiday with a friend helped me to overcome this ‘symptom’ of my anxiety, but it did not recognise, or address the actual anxiety which was triggering the eating issue. 

What did I learn from my experience? 

That what I ate, how much and when was completely in my control, and that how much I fixated on my worries about eating something which would make me sick was a barometer for my anxiety. 

That unless I addressed the underlying anxiety, and my own self-worth and self-confidence, I was not going to be able to fully address the eating issues. 

So, this is what I did, and I now understand my own anxiety levels in relation to my relationship with food, and eating. 

What was interesting was that during the first lockdown I recognised that my anxiety levels were increasing rapidly (as were lots of peoples) because I noticed that my fixation with food increased too.  That was my trigger to work towards addressing my emotional health and making that my priority. As an adult, and with this understanding, I managed to get my balance back. 

And what can I share with you? 

I see my eating behaviours as my ‘coping mechanisms’ when things are really challenging in my life, and there are lots of things happening outside of my control. If we consider how little control our teens have had over the last year, and their capacity to cope and manage their emotions, without the perspective we have as adults, is it any wonder that some of them are going to start to struggle? 

I don’t want you to leave this blog thinking that your teen is going to develop an eating disorder, far from itI want you to be aware that issues relating to food can be for a number of reasons. It can be in relation to losing weight and ‘looking better’, or because of a fear of what might happen if they do eat (fear of being sick is known as emetophobia). It can also be a fear of being judged, sometimes by their peer group for what they do eat.  What is important to recognise is that it can be a symptom of stress and anxiety or a broader issue where there is a conscious effort on behalf of your teen to lose weight. 

If any of these situations occur, know that without doubt it is not yours, or anyone else’s fault, but it may help your teen, and you to obtain some professional support and advice.  Early intervention is key to helping our teenagers to understand and move through challenges such as this. I was lucky that my experience did not turn into a full-blown eating disorder, but I still have to live with my controlled eating as a symptom of my anxiety, but I am comfortable with that, because I understand it. 

Knowledge is key, and getting help and guidance, can be a relief for you on your own teenage parenting journey, but also a great asset to a struggling teenager. 

You are not alone with this, the best thing we can do is be open and honest about our experiences, which is why I have shared my story today. 

Useful Resources and Further Information 

Here are some useful sites to go to for further information and guidance. If you do have immediate concerns about your teenager, then please seek medical advice. 

Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC) 

Beat (beating eating disorders) 

Rise Up Recovery Warriors App 

The Parents Guide to Eating Disorders What Parents Need to Know – Jane Smith  

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