Unhealthy appetites

Control over eating is something a teenager can take charge of.  Photo: Getty Images
Control over eating is something a teenager can take charge of. Photo: Getty Images

Any suggestion of an eating disorder in a teenager should be taken seriously, says parenting columnist Ian Munro.

Ian Munro
Ian Munro
Of all the problems that came through my door during my years as an adolescent counsellor, I found eating disorders one of the most difficult to deal with.

Back then, eating disorders were seen largely as a female issue. That has changed.

While eating disorders are particularly complex and the triggers many and varied, there are three main forms.

The most well-known is probably anorexia nervosa, in which sufferers starve themselves, generally in order to achieve some perfect body image that exists in their mind.

While we can see they are wasting away, they still see themselves as well overweight. They usually take laxatives in great quantities, induce vomiting and are excessively involved in physical exercise.

Having said that, it is also important to note there can be serious underlying issues other than a distorted body image. In some cases, anorexia can provide a teenager with a sense of control over at least part of their life in a family where they otherwise feel quite powerless.

Control over eating is something a teenager can take charge of. A teen can close their mouth and not eat and there’s little a parent can do about it. Or the teen can defiantly vomit the food up later behind a locked bathroom door.

The teen also becomes the centre of attention, albeit for negative reasons, and begins to take over control of much of the family dynamics from then on as the disorder takes its course.

Anorexia can also be effective in delaying sexual maturation in youngsters scared of their burgeoning sexual development and dreading adulthood.

Bulimia nervosa involves periodic binge eating followed by great guilt, self-disgust and again vomiting and purging. It becomes a vicious and out of control cycle of binge eating and dieting.

Bulimia is not so obvious as body weight does not vary greatly as starvation is not happening to anywhere the same extent as in anorexia.

A third disorder is straight binge eating, with obesity as the result. Sufferers are people who eat for the sake of eating. Again, there can be a variety of reasons for this happening. One of the more readily identified is eating as a comfort, perhaps when lonely, bored or depressed.

Anorexia is potentially more life-threatening than the other two disorders, although there can be long term health problems from the others. For example, binge eating can lead to diabetes later in life.

Teenagers today live in a constant social media feedback loop of connection and criticism that we are not always aware of until very late in the piece. Therefore any suggestion of an eating disorder in a teenager should be taken seriously.

More on eating disorders and body image next week.


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