5 Common Myths About Eating Disorders in Teens: What Parents Should Know

Peace at Home September 19, 2023 | Ruth Freeman

Maybe you’ve had a hunch your teen is struggling, but you’ve talked yourself out of worrying too much. It is incredibly difficult as a parent, especially with teenagers, to know when to step in and when to give them space.

Diet culture and weight bias can also interfere with our ability as parents to spot when our teen is struggling with an eating disorder. This is a problem because early detection and treatment of eating disorders leads to the best long-term outcomes. 

Let’s talk through some of the most common misconceptions of eating disorders so you’ll know a bit better if your concern is warranted. 

  • It’s obvious by looking at someone’s weight and size when they have an eating disorder. Individuals at any weight may be malnourished and/or engaging in unhealthy weight control practices. Most people with eating disorders are not visibly underweight.
  • My teen is a top athlete, so they must be eating enough. High school athletes are at higher risk for an eating disorder than non-athletes. Training for long hours and focus on fueling the body with “healthy” food can be a set up for trouble. The way that self-discipline is celebrated in athletics can make it harder to detect when a teen is struggling.  
  • My teen is doing very well in school, so they must be fine. Many adolescents who struggle with an eating disorder also display certain personality traits such as perfectionism, task oriented, goal oriented, taking pride in “mind over matter,” and having a drive for order and symmetry. These traits lend themselves to success in the academic context and are often praised. They can also set the stage for body control behaviors. 
  • All girls struggle with body dissatisfaction. It’s easy to see that in our culture there is an excessive value placed on weight loss. Both medical providers and the broader society conflate health and weight. People across the gender spectrum are confronted by images of ideal body types in our most widely consumed media platforms. This has led to a certain amount of “normalized” or expected body dissatisfaction. What’s common should not be misconstrued as “normal.” If your teen is expressing dissatisfaction with their body, this is always something worth staying curious with them about. 
  • My teen can’t have an eating disorder because they’re non-white. Eating disorders do not discriminate. People of all ages, genders, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds are affected by eating disorders. 

When we think our teen is struggling, it’s important to work through our own biases and misconceptions so that we can be open for communication. The key takeaway here is that we cannot tell from a person’s race, weight, athleticism, social or academic success whether or not they have an eating disorder. If your gut tells you something is off about your teen’s relationship with food, talk with them to learn how they see the issue, listen with care and refrain from trying to convince them of anything. If your concerns continue, reach out to your child’s medical provider, school psychologist or social worker, or other professional to consider next steps.

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