The issues with his appearance and weight had started before the pandemic, but they had started to worsen during the long periods of isolation at home.
The teenager has spent countless hours browsing Instagram and watching TikTok videos. She had noticed she was gaining weight because food was constantly available at home and it was so easy to get a snack.
The teenager started obsessing over everything she ate as she tried to lose the weight she had gained and make her body look like the people she constantly saw on her social media.
In the end, she hardly ate anything at all.
The teenager shows symptoms of an eating disorder. The rate of eating disorders among teenage girls has risen rapidly, with hospital admissions increasing by 25% in the first year of the pandemic. As the pandemic has begun to ebb and school is back in person, the ramification of the past two years on teen mental health continues.
Teenagers at risk of developing eating disorders tend to have an unrealistic view of their bodies where they see themselves as fat despite assurances from others that they are not. They also have much of their self-esteem linked to their weight and appearance.
Teens with eating disorders will adopt extreme eating habits.
These may begin by adopting a new diet, such as being vegan, which begins to restrict their diet. It can go where they eat too little.
Those who eat too little suffer from anorexia and these teenagers are often athletes, high achievers or perfectionists. Signs parents will notice are teens obsessing over calorie counts, skipping meals, avoiding social eating, and spending hours exercising to burn calories.
A different eating pattern that can be displayed is eating way too much and then flushing the excess food from their body. Bulimia attacks are often covert where teens may feel out of control while it is happening.
When it is over, they will feel guilty and will have to compensate by purging themselves. Those who fit this pattern suffer from bulimia and are often normal weight or even overweight.
Signs parents will observe include teens going to the bathroom immediately after meals, hoarding food in their room, using diet pills or laxatives, and having a sore throat, discolored teeth, and bad enamel.
Parents can help prevent eating disorders.
One way is to establish healthy eating habits where there is a routine of eating healthy, balanced meals as a family. Another way is to discuss foods in terms of health rather than good or bad. Third, parents should avoid criticizing their teen’s weight or appearance.
Finally, parents should be vigilant if their teen is under extreme pressure to look a certain way. Examples include being a member of a cheer or dance team or doing a particular weight class for wrestling.
If parents suspect their teen has an eating disorder, they should immediately contact a doctor for evaluation. Hospitalization is sometimes necessary for more advanced eating disorders.
Otherwise, family treatment where a therapist helps parents guide their teen’s recovery is often successful.
Dan Florell, Ph.D., is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and has a private practice, MindPsi (www.mindpsi.net). Praveena Salins, MD, is a pediatrician at Madison Pediatric Associates (www.madisonpeds.com).