As adolescence brings about various physical and emotional changes, teens may become increasingly aware of their bodies – both how they appear and how they function. With these developments, societal messages, and other stressors that teens may encounter, dieting may become a common teenage practice. While diet behaviors do appear to be regular practices in mainstream culture and may often be no cause for concern, as a parent you should consider that dieting is a risk factor for the development of eating disorders, and that eating disorders more commonly develop among the teenage and young adult years. If your teen is dieting, you must make an effort to be mindful about their actions and process to determine the risk in their behaviors and to prevent them from reaching an extreme. Here are some tips on how to approach your teen who is dieting.
Find Out What Dieting Actually Means to them
Everyone seems to have a different idea of what dieting is, particularly as the number of fad diets and various eating lifestyles are immeasurable. To determine whether your teen may be in danger, find out the specifics of their dieting techniques. Are they cutting out complete food groups? Do they skip meals altogether? Do they go days without eating? Have they reduced their portion sizes? Make an effort to have meals and snacks with your teen and observe and inquire about their eating patterns. Moreover, find out where they learned their dieting behaviors. Moreover find out about exercise and other compensatory behaviors that your teen may be using (self-induced vomiting, laxative use, diet pills) – what are they doing and how frequently? Moreover, explore your teen’s relationship with exercise – find out whether they exercise to offset their food intake or punish themselves, or if they enjoy exercise as a way to nurture the body.
Determine Why Your Teenager is Dieting
For a teenager struggling with self-esteem, whether related to their appearance or interpersonal relationships, or one that is enduring mental health concerns, dieting and weight loss can be perceived as a means to confidence and pathway to happiness. Ask your teenager whether they are intentionally choosing not to or whether they forget to eat or experience a lack in appetite. Find out if there was a particular moment or moments that influenced them to diet. Are dieting behaviors a way to distract from other concerns in the individual’s life? Explore with your teen some messages they might be receiving about their bodies or eating patterns that could be influencing their dieting patterns.
Evaluate How Dieting Might Be Affecting Their Physical Health
To determine the risk of your teen’s dieting behaviors, notice whether they may be taking a toll on their physical health. While drastic weight loss can be the product of dieting behaviors, loss of weight is not always an accurate reflection of the severity of one’s dieting patterns. In fact, weight gain can frequently be a result of dieting. Keep in mind that your teen who is dieting may also be taking part in other eating behaviors, such as binging or overeating, as a reaction to their restriction. Ensure your teen is getting routine physicals and lab work to determine any nutritional or mineral deficiencies or any other physical complications. Also, check in with them about their physical health – Do they experience joint pain? Fainting? Exhaustion?
Notice Signs of Psychological Distress or Mood Changes
Reflect upon your teen’s history of mental health concerns and keep in mind that eating disorders are usually the symptoms of other underlying psychological issues. Check in with your teen about their feelings and determine what adaptive coping strategies they have in place. Take note of any changes in their mood or emotional functioning – Do they appear more anxious? Are they socially withdrawn? Do they seem depressed? However, teenagers are naturally experiencing a lot of changes and emotional dysregulation during adolescence, so determining whether their mood or behaviors are pathological may be challenging. However, even the regular stressors for a teen can be enough to contribute to an eating disorder. Subsequently, discover how their mood or emotions are affecting other areas of their life, such as academics and socializing. Moreover, dieting practices usually derive from a lack of self-acceptance. Try to explore this issue with your teen; ask them how they are feeling and if their dieting is playing any role in helping them feel better. Try to understand and empathize with your teen rather than become angry, shame them, or try to “fix” their situation. Instead, focus on maintaining a safe, open space where your teen feels comfortable being vulnerable with you.
Set an Example
If you’re worried about your teenager’s dieting behaviors, you must evaluate your own eating patterns and relationship with your body. Find out how your food intake might set an example that your teen may want to follow or reject. Determine the messages about food that you have spread to your teen – Do you label foods as “bad” or “good?” Are certain foods off limits and are you “bad” if you eat them? Send the message to your teenager that all foods fit and don’t have a particular moral value. Learn more about intuitive eating and practice eating with your teen in a way that feels natural to your body’s physical hunger cues, encourages being present and mindful, and is also enjoyable. Moreover, set examples of how to take care of your body (gentle exercise, massage, proper hygiene).
Promote Body Positivity
Find out how your teenager feels about their body and how big of a role this plays in their life and in their decision to diet. Evaluate how much mental and physical energy their body image takes up in their daily life. Be open to discussions about what having a different, ideal body type might bring and whether this is realistic. Also take note of how you talk about the bodies of others, including the teens’, and your own. In fact, why even talk about other people’s bodies in the first place? Teach your teen to focus on other aspects of self-worth such as their passions and hobbies. Avoid using one’s size as a main way to describe them. Emphasize feeling strong, healthy, and vibrant instead of seeking thinness. Help your teen recognize that their body is a vehicle towards achieving all of their goals, and assist them in practicing gratitude for what their body can do. Moreover, compliment and show your teen that you love and appreciate them for their qualities that have nothing to do with their appearance.
Educate Your Teen (and Yourself)
Your teenager may have absolutely no idea what the science behind dieting entails. Find out more about this, such as the fact that dieting sends the individual into starvation mode, which ultimately increases their food consumption and leads to weight gain. Describe to your teen the negative effects of dieting on cognitive, mental, and physical processes, and how this may impact what is important to them – their academics, sports, friendships, etc.
Seek Professional Help
If you are concerned about your teenager’s dieting habits and are not sure how to handle them, professional help can be useful. Gently discuss with your teenager your concerns and explore what it might be like for them to go to a therapist or dietician. Your teen may resist this, but you can at least let them know these options are available. Moreover, you could even seek therapy or dietetic guidance yourself to help your teen to a certain extent.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are struggling with compulsive exercise or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food, body image, and movement.