Teenagers are usually undergoing a turbulent time, with raging hormones, body changes, and the difficulty of learning to socialize and take on the responsibilities of an adult.They also begin to ask for more privacy from their parents. Normally that’s fine, but that privacy can be used to hide a growing problem, especially when a disorder like anorexia nervosa is involved. At a time when children start to demand more personal privacy, there is also a cheater chance for developing potential behavioral and mental health diseases than during the early childhood years.

Anorexia Nervosa

The average age of onset for anorexia nervosa is 17 – 18 years old, although that number is skewing downward in recent years. There have even been cases observed in girls as young as 6 years old. For parents concerned about their kids' eating patterns, this can be a terrifying thought. However, there are signs that parents can look out for and hopefully use to secure treatment sooner rather than later. Here are four signs your teen (or tween) may have a problem:

Changing the Way They Eat

One of the earliest signs of a disordered relationship with food and eating is when eating patterns and behaviors change. There are lots of ways this might manifest. One of these is developing food rituals,which might become more elaborate or rigidly enforced as time goes on. Some common rituals might include pushing foods around on the plate, refusing to eat foods if they touch other kinds of food on the plate, only eating foods in a certain order, refusing to eat certain types of food compulsively, cutting off certain parts of the foods (like the crusts or more well-done parts of meat), or others. Of course, most of these are innocuous on their own but combined with other unusual behaviors, it might be a sign that anorexia nervosa or another eating disorder is developing.

Compulsive Exercising

This is one of the most common symptoms of many forms of an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa. Virtually every person with anorexia nervosa has a distorted body image. Although they may be severely underweight or emaciated they see themselves as overweight or otherwise unattractive. This can cause them to take extreme measures to avoid gaining weight.In addition to the well-known avoidance of eating, this can also show up in the form of excessive exercise.Exercise, of course, is recommended within reason for most people.Anorexia-related obsessive exercise can put strains on the body, though. The strain put on the body from compulsive exercise can be powerful; there can be negative effects onthe knees, feet, and other joints as well as the heart and lungs.Teenagers who are compulsively exercising may skip social engagements to exercise, go on runs during bad weather like snowstorms or thunderstorms, or continue to exercise when they have been injured.

Dieting and Counting Calories

Much like distorted body image, almost every person who develops anorexia nervosa has a history of dieting and counting calories. This frequent dieting is part-and-parcel of the characteristic efforts of people with anorexia nervosa to avoid gaining weight under any circumstances. For many people without eating disorders, losing a few pounds might be a worthwhile goal, but for people with anorexia nervosa, it is a symptom of their disorder. While healthy eating should always be encouraged, for growing children a balanced diet is essential for growth and mental/emotional development. Parents who see their teenagers compulsively counting their calories and dieting should be aware there may be a disordered eating pattern on the way.

Continued and Excessive Weight Loss

This is the most obvious sign of anorexia nervosa and the one that defines it per the DSM-V. Although other illnesses such as leukemia or type-1 diabetes can cause excessive weight loss in teenagers, a sudden or continuous pattern of weight loss is unusual in a growing adolescent. As time goes on, people with anorexia nervosa will restrict their food intake to the point where they cannot maintain viable body weight. For teenagers and smaller children, it can severely slow or even halt growth and development. If weight loss continues for 6 months or your child is noticeably emaciated, there is a serious cause for concern.

There Is Always Hope
Anorexia nervosa affects almost one percent of the female population, and the chances are very good that many others with the disorder don’t report it. However, an anorexia diagnosis isn't a cause to lose hope.There are many options for help, most notably from a professional anorexia nervosa treatment center. Keep an eye out for these early warning signs – and reach out to her sooner rather than later.


With 20 years of behavioral health business development experience, Carrie combines world-class marketing, media, public relations, outreach and business development with a deep understanding of client care and treatment. Her contributions to the world of behavioral health business development – and particularly eating disorder treatment – go beyond simple marketing; she has actively developed leaders for her organizations and for the industry at large.