Commonly misunderstood, anorexia is one of several different eating disorders, characterized by compulsive exercise and an abnormally low body weight. Anorexia can also be described as an irrational and overpowering fear of gaining weight.
Teen anorexia treatment is needed for teens with a severely distorted body image, to the point of struggling with health issues due to being underweight. Anorexia should never be used to describe a thin or skinny teen, or someone who simply looks thin. It is a serious disorder that can be chronic and can lead to deficiencies and death.
Anorexia commonly begins as a form of maladaptive coping, a mechanism developed to overcome stress or in response to a very specific fear or worry. Several factors influence the development of anorexia, which can be described as biopsychosocial.
Social factors – anorexia exists in both genders but is more pronounced in women. Teens are continuously exposed to advertising and social media that pushes them to be leaner and thinner, giving many teens a skewed image of what a healthy or attractive woman would look like. In some careers, thinness is necessary to compete for better opportunities, putting pressure on young women to drastically alter the way they look and slim down to unhealthy levels. Being thin is not unhealthy, but weight is influenced by many factors outside of nutrition and exercise, including genetics and hormone changes in young teens. Unrealistic or downright unhealthy standards may push teens who are more susceptible to such messages to start engaging in disordered eating, and eventually develop anorexia.
Psychological factors – there are other symptoms and disorders that feed into anorexia, including symptoms and character traits that imply an obsessive-compulsive psyche, such as the need to control and manage every calorie, forego food despite hunger, and engage in unhealthy amounts of exercise. These behaviors are often driven by anxiety, and teens with high levels of external pressure and stress may be more likely to resort to anorexic behavior as a way to exert control on an aspect of their life.
Biological factors – the full extent of how genetics may impact the development of eating disorders and other forms of anxiety in teens is not fully understood, but there may be a link between the potential of developing an eating disorder, and family history of mental illness. Other traits that may point towards a higher risk of developing anorexia include being controlling, perfectionist, and highly sensitive to anything out of control.
people struggling with anorexia are female
of 9-year-old girls have dieted
of girls still in school think they’re overweight
Learn more about the disorder – anorexia is a persistent problem, with symptoms and pervasive thoughts that are often recurring, over years. It is often triggered by stress and overwhelming outside pressure, especially in teens with prior issues of anxiety. It’s one of several eating disorders, which often manifest as a way to cope with problems. By learning more about your teen’s specific symptoms and possible causes, you can help them identify why they turned towards weight control as a way to cope with their mental health to begin with, and you can explore options to heal in better ways together.
Help your teen cope after treatment – treatment for anorexia can be life-saving. Up to 20% of people with eating disorders die due to the symptoms of their disorder if left untreated, and most teens who go through anorexia treatment make a full recovery, while most of the rest make a partial recovery, and can continue to improve with dedicated support after treatment. Regardless of how your teen recovers after treatment, it’s important to look into other resources to help your teen continue to cope and seek out help after treatment.
Encourage your teen to talk about their problems – it is critical, especially in teens with a history of mental health issues, that parents establish a strong bond of trust between themselves and their children. Getting your teen to talk about their problems can be tough, but if you can convince them that you’re here for them, to listen to them and help out in a non-judgmental way, and help guide them through a path they want to take, then they’re likely to open up to you and be more transparent about how they’re feeling, which is important if you want to preempt any future problems with recurring symptoms or other disorders.
Treating anorexia will take time and persistence, and because the condition can be chronic, especially in a girl’s teen years, it is important to help a teen continue to maintain the lessons they’ve learned during therapy and treatment to continue to cope with stressors in life and avoid relapsing to old habits as a way to deal with pressure.
Psychotherapy or talk therapy is the primary treatment for anorexia, simply involving the use of various different therapeutic approaches to help a teen recognize their behavior, identify why it is harmful, and take the steps to change and prevent it. Therapy can be slow, but the progress is usually steady. The first step is to help a teen recognize and truly accept their diagnosis and understand why they turned towards anorexic behavior to begin with.
After that, therapy is meant to help the teen correct their thought processes, block, and identify negative emotions that might trigger the urge to begin picking up old habits, and find ways to deal with negative emotions and stress in a healthy, effective way. Common methods of talk therapy include CBT and DBT, both of which may be used to help a teen with anorexia.
Rather than address the disorder itself, medication prescribed by doctors can help therapists better get through to a teen and help them manage their negative thoughts. If the thoughts are particularly severe and irrational, there may be psychotic underpinnings to the teen’s behavior, suggesting that they’re struggling to perceive reality as it is. In certain cases of anorexic behavior rooted in a completely warped self-image, anti-psychotic medication might help. Otherwise, SSRIs (antidepressants) are sometimes prescribed to help improve the effects of therapy and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Continued support is very important when dealing with anorexia, and support groups can help teens and adults going through various stages of the treatment process better learn how to fight against the urge to begin dieting again, and instead pursue healthier lives.
The most important goal of teen anorexia treatment is to restore and protect their physical well-being, which means helping them return to a healthy weight. This includes careful interventions with regard to both diet and exercise. This process can take time and may be met with resistance, as the teen may not yet agree with the need for treatment.
Dedicated to Treatment
It’s important for teens to be carefully monitored and wholly supported throughout this process, which is one benefit of Paradigm’s residential teen treatment, in that it provides such a uniquely supportive environment for healing to occur. Beyond healthy weight management, therapists at Paradigm Malibu also work with teens to address any other connected behaviors, false belief systems, and unhealthy ways of dealing with stress.
Our therapists help teens to recognize what conflict or stress may be leading to their unhealthy habits with food, which can help teens start to make progress toward overall healthier views of themselves as well. Therapists also provide an invaluable support to teens in creating an objective, safe, non-judging, supportive system that helps teens to recognize they’re not alone and to have the courage to address what they’re going through.
A Social Environment
Many teens start and dedicate themselves to their disordered habits as way of gaining recognition from others. Teens might become anorexic due to a drive to compete with other girls who measure their self-worth through their value on the scale, or they might think that by eating less and looking smaller, they would be more attractive, and thus attract more attention from others.
It can be very important in some cases for teens to realize during and after treatment that they can be treated nicely even after quitting their diets and easing on the exercise. It’s very important for them to learn that their appearance only matters to a certain degree, and that it’s far more important to live a healthy life and exercise self-respect than it is to pursue unhealthy standards.
“ Our 16-year has been struggling with anxiety and severe depression and seemed stuck. We felt we had nowhere else to go. After 40 days, I feel like we've gotten our daughter back! It’s been an amazing experience. She now has tools, perspective, improved self love and a resilience we haven't seen in two years. “
– Rebecca J.
What should I do if I think my teenager is anorexic, but he or she denies it?
The first step is to try to talk honestly and openly with your child. This needs to be done in a setting where you are alone together, where your teenager feels comfortable. Then, tell them what you’ve observed and how their behavior has been affecting them and those around them.
It’s important to ensure that they way you handle the situation highlights the fact that you’re not being judgmental or aggressive. Don’t speculate or try to guess what your child might be thinking and speak only of how you’re feeling in the situation. If your teen can see that their behavior genuinely worries you and has been hurting their relationships with others, then they might realize they have a problem.
If not, you will have to contact a doctor or therapist for help. An objective, professional opinion of your teen’s behavior will be more authoritative, and perhaps conclusive, to your teen. You can expect some resistance at first, but given enough time and with persistence, you will be able to convince your teen to get help.
What is the difference between anorexia nervosa and bulimia?
Anorexia is characterized by compulsive exercise and dangerously low bodyweight. Behavior that often accompanies anorexia includes self-starvation, extremely low body fat, and very low food intake.
Bulimia is also known for being an eating disorder primarily revolving around reducing weight, but the behavior associated with bulimia is very different. Rather than eat little to nothing at all, bulimics consume no food for periods of time, and then binge when they get hungry. After eating a very large amount of food, they will begin to purge. Inducing vomiting is usually a big warning sign, but there are other ways bulimics may force food to pass through their system quickly, including laxative abuse.