Identifying and Treating Teen Anorexia

Identifying and Treating Teen Anorexia
Anorexia is characterized by the refusal to maintain a healthy body weight, with weight loss achieved and maintained by severely restricted food intake.

Anorexia Statistics

  • About 1 percent, or one to two out of every 100, American teenagers have eating disorders. Anorexia is the most common.

  • Most teenagers with anorexia are girls, but about 10 percent are boys. Teen boys with anorexia are considered to be under-reported and under-treated, as there is extra stigma involved when boys are concerned with their weight.

  • Adolescents are being diagnosed at younger and younger ages. Currently there is an increase in kids as young as 8 to 11 being diagnosed.

  • While teens of all races are diagnosed with anorexia, the majority are Caucasian. This may be a result of more white kids having anorexia, but is most likely at least in part due to cultural and socio-economic factors such as the likelihood to seek treatment.

  • Between 5 and 20 percent of teenagers diagnosed with anorexia will die from the condition.


Signs to Watch For

There are signs to watch for that may indicate that your child may need evaluation for anorexia.

The most significant are preoccupation with weight, a fascination with fad diets, a change in eating habits, excessive exercise and the development of rituals and rules regarding food.

People who are anorexic suffer from body dysmorphia, often believing that they are overweight even when they are of normal or low weight.

Some people are more susceptible to anorexia than others. Anorexic teenagers are often type-A perfectionists. While getting good grades and other areas of success may be highly important to teenagers with anorexia, they may suffer from very low self-esteems. Onset of anorexia often comes after a comment about weight from an adult whose opinion matters to them, such as a doctor or coach.

Physical signs that your child is participating in anorexic behaviors include sudden weight loss, a fine covering of hair over the body, loss of muscle, dry skin and loss of hair. Girls who lose too much weight may no longer be able to menstruate. Young girls who are anorexic may not start their periods. Be aware that fainting, weakness, depression and irritability are also symptoms of anorexia.


A recent study has shown that teenagers with anorexia respond well to family therapy. It is often not enough to seek treatment for the teenager. There maybe dynamics in the family that have manifested in this behavior. Also, having an ill family member affects the whole family.

The model of family therapy for anorexic teenagers, rather than long-term individual therapy, is a departure of the old idea that these kids need to be separated from their families to recover. It removes blame from the family or the teenager, and promotes healing for everyone.

If you suspect your teenager is exhibiting anorexic behaviors, a good first step is to talk to your family doctor or pediatrician. A referral to a therapist will almost surely be made. If your child's condition is dire, placement in a residential facility for stabilization maybe required.

When approaching your teenager with your concerns, keep an open, non-judgmental attitude. Be open with your fears and ask questions. Be prepared to listen. Research anorexia and understand what it is, what causes it and all of the choices for treatment. Know that anorexia is a mental illness and not something teenagers who suffer from it can turn on and off at will.

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