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Eating Disorders in Teen: Tips for Parents

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders involve persistent eating behaviors that are harmful to a person’s physical and mental health. Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, can also negatively impact a person’s relationships and daily activities.

Eating disorders are likely caused by both genetics and outside pressures from society and peers. Individuals with a family member with an eating disorder are more likely to develop one themselves.

What are symptoms of eating disorders?

Signs and symptoms that your child may have an eating disorder vary depending on the type of eating disorder. Some red flags include:

  • Changes in appearance including dramatic weight loss (though it is important to realize that eating disorders not only may cause weight loss, but can also cause weight gain or no change in weight at all), puffy cheeks due to swollen salivary glands, and dry skin and hair.

  • Making excuses to avoid mealtimes, denying feeling hungry, or avoiding situations that involve food.

  • Withdrawing from friends and social activities and becoming more isolated

  • Preoccupation with food or weight, making comments of being “fat,” or intense fear of becoming “fat.”

  • Compensating for eating by vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, or excessive exercise.

  • Eating rituals such as arranging food on plate to make it look like food was eaten, or cutting food into small pieces.

What can parents do?

Preventing eating disorders and promoting positive body image are important. It might not be easy to discuss these issues with your son or daughter, but the following tips can help you get started:

  • Discuss what they’ve heard and seen in the media. What messages about body image have they heard? Do they think there is only one acceptable body type?

  • Cultivate self-esteem. Applaud their accomplishments, whether that be in school or extra-curricular activities. Look for qualities your teen has such as kindness, a sense of humor or patience. Comment on those qualities rather than on appearance.

  • Encourage healthy eating habits. Discuss with your teen that what they eat affects their energy and health. Emphasize overall nutrition. If you and your teen cook together, and share the appreciation of preparing a healthful, lovingly prepared meal.

  • Make a habit of eating together as a family at dinner time.

  • Set a good example. As challenging as it may be, try to be a positive role model by eating healthy, exercising regularly and not being overly critical about your own appearance.

If you suspect your teen may have an eating disorder, talk to them. Encourage them to open up about their emotions and their concerns about their body. The National Eating Disorders Association Hotline (800-931-2237) can also be contacted for resources and support. Schedule an appointment with your child’s doctor.

If your teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder, treatment usually involves talk therapy, nutrition education, and on occasion, medication. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary. Stay involved in your teens treatment and recovery—research shows better outcomes for teens with parental involvement. With early intervention and strong support, recovery is possible.


Fenner, Emma. September 2018.

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