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Eating Disorders: Tips to Help Your Teenage Daughter

Eating disorders can take a devastating toll on teenagers — especially females. To help your teenage daughter, learn the possible causes of eating disorders and know how to talk to her about healthy eating habits.

The exact cause of eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder) is unknown. However, various factors might put adolescent girls at risk of developing eating disorders. For example:
  • Favorite activities. Participation in activities that value leanness (e.g., wrestling, running, ballet) can increase the risk of teenage eating disorders.
  • Low self-esteem. Teenagers that have low self-esteem might use their eating habits or weight loss to achieve a sense of stability or control.
  • Personal factors. Genetics or biological factors might make some teenage girls more likely to develop eating disorders. Personality traits such as perfectionism, anxiety or rigidity might also play a role.
  • Societal pressure. Modern Western culture tends to place a premium on being physically attractive and having a slim body. Even with a normal body weight, teenagers can easily develop the perception that they're fat. This can trigger an obsession with losing weight, dieting and being thin — especially for females.

At first, teenage eating disorders can cause signs and symptoms such as:
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness 
  • Fatigue 
  • Menstrual irregularities
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weakness

Eventually, teenage eating disorders can cause more-serious or even life-threatening health problems, including:
  • Anemia
  • Bone loss
  • Delayed growth and development
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart problems
  • Muscle wasting
  • Seizures 
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior 
  • Thinning hair 
  • Tooth decay

To help prevent teenage eating disorders, talk to your daughter about eating habits and body image. It might not be easy, but it's important. To get started, try these parenting tips:

1. Use food for nourishment — not as a reward or consequence. Resist the temptation to offer food as a bribe. Similarly, don't take away food as a punishment.

2. Share the dangers of dieting and emotional eating. Explain that dieting can compromise your daughter’s nutrition, growth and health, as well as lead to the development of binge-eating over time. Remind her that eating or controlling her diet isn't a healthy way to cope with emotions. Instead, encourage her to talk to loved ones, friends or a counselor about problems she might be facing.

3. Schedule a medical checkup for your teenager. The doctor can assess your teen's risk of an eating disorder, as well as order urine tests, blood tests or other tests to detect complications. Your daughter's doctor can reinforce the messages you're giving her at home, as well as help identify early signs of an eating disorder. For example, the doctor can look for unusual changes in your daughter’s body mass index or weight percentiles during routine medical appointments. The doctor can talk to her about her eating habits, exercise routine, and body image. If necessary, the doctor can refer your child to a mental health provider.

4. Remember the importance of setting a good example yourself. If you're constantly dieting, using food to cope with your emotions or talking about losing weight, you might have a hard time encouraging your teenage daughter to eat a healthy diet or feel satisfied with her appearance. Instead, make conscious choices about your lifestyle and take pride in your body.

5. Promote a healthy body image. Talk to your child about her self-image and offer reassurance that healthy body shapes vary. Don't allow hurtful nicknames or jokes based on a person's physical characteristics. Avoid making comments about another person based on weight or body shape.

6. If your teenager is diagnosed with an eating disorder, treatment will likely involve a type of family therapy that helps you work with daughter to improve her eating habits, reach a healthy weight, and manage other symptoms. Sometimes medication is prescribed to treat accompanying mental health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.). In severe cases, hospitalization might be needed.

7. If you suspect that your teenage daughter has an eating disorder (e.g., you've noticed baggy clothes to hide weight loss, or perhaps excessive exercise, or reluctance to eat meals with the family), then start the conversation about body image. Encourage your adolescent to open up about her problems and concerns.

8. Foster self-esteem. Respect your daughter’s accomplishments, and support her goals. Listen when she speaks. Look for positive qualities (e.g., curiosity, generosity, sense of humor, etc.). Remind your adolescent that your love and acceptance is unconditional — not based on her weight or appearance.

9. Encourage reasonable eating habits. Talk to your teenage daughter about how diet can affect her health, appearance and energy level. Encourage her to eat when she is hungry. Make a habit of eating together as a family.

10. Discuss media messages. Television programs, movies, websites and other media might send your teenager the message that only a certain body type is acceptable. Encourage your child to talk about and question what she has seen or heard — especially from websites or other sources that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice, rather than an eating disorder.


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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