Teen body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder, is characterized by the conviction that the person struggling with the disorder looks deformed or extremely ugly (for instance, they believe they have a huge chin or badly scarred skin), when in reality, they look perfectly normal. Another example involves a completely flawed body image – a teen might feel they are fat despite being underweight, or they might feel small despite being muscular.
Although most people are self-aware and possess a few insecurities, the body image problems in cases of body dysmorphia are so extreme and delusional that they often defy any form of rational thinking and can cause a person to withdraw from social contact out of fear or self-loathing. This disorder can be extremely disruptive to everyday life, especially for a teen.
The cause of the disorder is not fully known. However, there are biopsychosocial risk factors that largely explain why a given individual may struggle with body dysmorphic disorder. These include:
Psychological trauma – bullying in particular can lead to a highly flawed body image and an extremely heightened sense of aesthetics, causing an unhealthy form of perfectionism. Teens who are regularly bullied for their appearance might take on an irrational self-image. Once the disorder manifests, it comes and goes as flare-ups are usually generated by excess stress, often in the form of academic obligations or bullying.
Genetics – inheritability is estimated at 43%, suggesting that body dysmorphic disorder may be largely attributed to certain inheritable issues in the brain.
Media influence – it has been suggested and partially proven through correlation that body dysmorphic disorder is influenced by the consumption of media, causing teens to believe they must conform to an impossible physical standard, especially in terms of certain unchangeable features such as height and bone structure. Rather than come to terms with their physique and learn to embrace who they are, many teens struggle with a variety of body image issues, in no small part due to advertising, social media, and more.
people struggle with body dysmorphic disorder
of males may meet criteria for muscle dysmorphia
of people with major depressive disorder may also struggle with BDD
Believe in the process – it can be frustrating at times to see someone you love be consumed by irrational thinking that you cannot follow. It might seem cathartic to think of pulling them aside and shaking them until reality sets in. What might be obvious to you, however, is completely outdone by their delusions. Be patient and understanding and believe that the treatment will help them right themselves.
Be a cheerleader – your goal alongside your teen should be to fight this disorder together, and not treat your teen in a precarious matter as though the disorder was interwoven into their very being. Just like any illness, it’s a condition they’re struggling with immensely, and one they don’t want. Body dysmorphic disorder is not a form of self-pity, but a legitimate mental illness that requires treatment and support. By providing enthusiasm, empathy, and understanding for your teen’s situation, you prove to them that you’re in their corner, and believe that they’re great despite how they may feel about themselves at times.
Take care of yourself – you cannot help anyone if you’re struggling with depression yourself. One common mistake for many family members to make when someone they love is struggling with a mental illness is to put everything aside and focus solely on helping their loved one. Yes, supporting your teen is very important, but if you let the disorder tear you or your family apart, it’ll only continue to sow chaos. Take care of your own needs and manage your stress responsibly.
Helping a teen diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder consists largely of helping them understand their condition, and why it’s harmful. It would be counterproductive to tell a teen to conform to some other, more attainable standard – instead, teens are taught to understand where their thoughts are coming from, how and why they are destructive, and how they can manage them and let healthier, more sensible forms of self-confidence and self-esteem shine to the forefront. Over the course of therapy, a teen will learn what body they are truly most comfortable with. Different forms of treatment include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy is extremely effective in helping teens deal with body dysmorphic disorder. This type of talk therapy specializes in helping a teen identify negative or false beliefs, reinforce, and pursue healthier, positive thinking, and affect both behavior and emotions through guided and disciplined thoughts – being cognitively aware of the problem, and using tools learned through therapy to assess and eliminate these self-destructive thoughts. A therapist can also help gradually teach a person positive techniques to deal with feelings of inadequacy.
Body dysmorphic disorder is highly prevalent among individuals with symptoms of general anxiety, social anxiety, and most commonly, atypical major depressive disorder. As such, medication can be used to help suppress negative thinking and help teens counter the urge to engage in self-destructive behavior because of a negative thought pattern. Usually, anti-depressants are prescribed if a case is severe enough to warrant them. SSRIs are the safest and most commonly-prescribed antidepressants.
Body dysmorphic disorder can tear a teen’s life apart, and bring them to the brink of a depression, or worse – but with proper treatment, your teen can live a completely normal life and learn to encourage healthy, positive thoughts and suppress the urge to see reality differently. The first step in that direction is finding the right place to begin. Paradigm Malibu offers several unique locations, all of which are dedicated to helping teens learn how to cope with their diagnosis and heal.
Focused on Treatment
Giving a teen time to prioritize their disorder and help them find ways to cope with their thoughts and address their symptoms is critical with a condition like body dysmorphic disorder. This disorder can cause severe damage to the body through compulsive self-destructive behavior, and the only thing capable of stopping a teen from succumbing to permanent damage is them. Through a dedicated treatment program at Paradigm Malibu, teens can take the time away from home and school to home in on their symptoms and find better ways to live.
Often, people with body dysmorphic disorder struggle to interact with peers, paranoid about what they might think, or traumatized from years of bullying and shaming. It’s not healthy to struggle with social interaction, and it is important not only to learn how to interact with the self, but how to interact with others. Paradigm Malibu only accepts small groups at a time, giving teens the space to work on their own issues and slowly integrate others into their lives.
I don't know who will see this, but I just thought I'd put it out into the world that Paradigm Malibu changed my life forever. Long story short, I had nothing but anger inside me when I got there, and putting the rest of the world to the side for a while and being present with people I grew to love helped me gain my sense of self back. I'm forever grateful for the people of Paradigm.
- Olivia H.
Is cosmetic surgery an option?
In a study of over 200 patients with body dysmorphic disorder, no change in the severity or effect of the disorder occurred after surgery. BDD is not a physical issue, it is purely a psychological one with physical repercussions. Because the disorder is not based in reality, cosmetic surgery will not alter a teen’s misconception of themselves any more than will another person arguing that they look fine would.
Do I have body dysmorphic disorder?
The diagnosis for body dysmorphic disorder depends on three points. Preoccupation with appearance, certain beliefs, and compulsive behavior. Only a mental health professional should and can make an actual valid diagnosis, preferably someone with experience with BDD or someone who specializes in treating BDD and similar disorders. Online information can help you and your loved ones prepare for what’s next, but only a doctor can help you find out whether you have the disorder to begin with.