When a parent learns that a son has an eating disorder, the news can be not only painful but also surprising. Eating disorders in teenagers are commonly thought of as a “girls only” problem. Yet, some experts in the field of eating disorders have become increasingly concerned about males, particularly adolescent males, who are risk for unhealthy eating patterns or who have eating disorders.
Anorexia and bulimia are two eating disorders that affect teenage boys as well as teenage girls. Anorexia occurs when an individual loses a significant amount of weight even though he or she is already at a normal body weight or even underweight. Strict dieting, excessive exercise, and frequent weigh-ins are characteristic of anorexia. Bulimia involves a binge/purge cycle that takes place repeatedly over time. After rapidly eating large volumes of high calorie foods during the binging stage, a person purges by vomiting or using laxatives.
Parents need to be attuned to the possibility that a teenage boy may have an eating disorder. Warning signs of an eating disorder that parents can detect include:
- Extreme concern for body weight or shape
- Eating secretively and lying about food consumption
- Refusing meals with family, or avoiding social situations involving food
- Engaging in eating and food rituals such as eating only very specific foods
- Exercising compulsively and becoming upset when a work-out is missed
While these warning signs apply to boys and girls, boys may be more likely to use steroids and over the counter muscle enhancers in an effort to attain a muscular V-shaped body. Boys who participate in sports that require frequent weigh-ins are also at greater risk for eating disorders.
Professional consultation is necessary for eating disorders. In advanced stages, some eating disorders can be life-threatening. An evaluation by a pediatrician or primary care physician is the first step in getting help for an eating disorder. If treatment is deemed appropriate by the physician, both medical and mental health professionals skilled in the treatment of eating disorders need to be involved in working towards recovery.
Talking with the Teen
It is not unusual for teenagers to repeatedly reject overtures by a parent to discuss concerns about an eating disorder. Here are some points for parents to consider when trying to open up the conversation:
- Discuss his behavior such as skipping meals or spending extremely long hours at the gym
- Avoid focusing on his appearance
- Don’t accuse, threaten, or argue but instead take the time to listen and reflect
- Be sure to let your son know that you are having this conversation with him because you love, support, and care for him, and want him to be as healthy and happy as possible
- For your first conversation, consider having the goal be to agree to talk to his doctor to get an expert opinion
- Don’t give up if the teen denies a problem or won’t talk about it – that’s not unusual. Instead stay calm and try at another time soon
The Need for Help
Studies show that approximately one million males in the United States suffer from eating disorders. This information coupled with the fact that the peak onset years for eating disorders are 14 to 18 in both boys and girls highlights the importance of parents being aware of this problem. Parents are likely to be in the best position to be familiar with a son’s eating habits and lifestyle and they should not dismiss the possibility of a teenage boy having an eating disorder simply because of his gender.
If you suspect your teen has an eating disorder, call the parent helpline at 314.454.TEEN.