Eating disorders do not discriminate and are observed in people of all ages, including children, tweens, and teens.
Eating disorders can affect people of all ages, including children.
According to occupational therapist Marlene van den Berg, diet culture, body image, and ideas of self-worth are invariably linked and related to a child’s vulnerability to eating disorders.
Eating disorders are among the most common mental health conditions developed by young people. In a world where fad diets and extreme beauty and body standards are the norms, children suffering from eating disorders can go unnoticed by even the most attentive parent.
Do you suspect your teen has an eating disorder?
Eating disorder is an umbrella term that covers unhealthy relationships with food and can include overeating, under-eating, binge eating, purging, and other unhealthy food habits.
Marlene says recognising unhealthy patterns can help you recognise if your teen is suffering from an eating disorder.
“This can be difficult to separate from the many popular fitness regimes that some teens subscribe to. However, eating disorders are strongly tied to ‘rules’ in the mind of the sufferer. For example, ‘I can eat that slice of toast because I am going to run 10km’. Or, ‘If I do not run 10km I cannot eat anything at all” she says.
Why eating disorders in teens are particularly dangerous
Eating disorders are serious mental and physical illnesses that involve complex and damaging relationships with food, eating, exercise, and body image. Eating disorders can even be life-threatening and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Marlene says there is a difference between a teen wanting to lose weight and a teen with an eating disorder – although the difference may not always be obvious. This type of imbalanced view is very different from healthy weight management and exercise plan.
An eating disorder is not a lifestyle illness; it is the result of an underlying emotional issue. Teens who have reached extreme stages of eating disorders usually require specialised inpatient care at a treatment facility for the best chance of recovery.
Is it a diet or eating disorder?
Helping your teen get treatment for mental illness, especially when they are unaware of the condition, can be difficult.
Natascha Stallkamp, a registered clinical psychologist, says sufferers are often unaware they are developing an eating disorder, they can be the first to pick up warning signs that something is not right. “It is important to check in with your teen if you feel like their eating habits might be problematic,” she says.
How to help
If you’re concerned about your child’s eating habits, it’s best to speak to a professional for advice. If in doubt, reach out to your family doctor or health care provider who can assist.