They’re Eating Me Out of House and Home!

adolescents and eating disorders

Eating and Sleeping Norms During Adolescents (age 9-19)

When I tell people that I am a counselor who specializes in working with women who have eating disorders, people often see this as an opportunity to open up and share their experiences with weight and body image struggles-- whether theirs, their daughter’s, sister’s, brother’s, and/or friends’.

As a parent of 2 elementary school-aged kids, I often hear the concerns parents have for elementary school-aged children. ”My child is sleeping in till noon! She’s becoming so lazy.” Or, “He never stops eating. I’m worried he’s going to get chunky.”

And, so what do they do?? Parents, with best intentions, confess: “I took all of the “junk” food from the house.” Or, “I tell him/her that I just want him/her to be healthy.” It hurts my heart and ignites a fire inside of me to hear things like this. 

I see that the problem is parents are not informed about normal development for adolescents. This lack of information can be detrimental. So, if you are one of those parents searching for answers, here is what you should know:

3 Things You Should Know

1. A Time Of Weight Gain

Half of a person’s ideal body weight is gained during adolescents. The average amount of weight gained in adolescents is 15-55 lbs; that’s a mean gain of 38.5 lbs between the ages of nine and thirteen. Most parents are shocked to hear that it is perfectly normal for their child to gain 20 lbs.

in a single year. For a girl, once her period starts the weight gain will begin to slow down to around 14 lbs/yr. This rate continues into late adolescence.

2. A Time to Eat and Sleep

It’s common knowledge that as kids get closer to their teen years they eat and sleep more. “You kids are eating us out of house and home” is a common statement in many pre-/teen homes. It makes sense given the statistics above. Children require more sleep and in adolescence they need about 1600 to 2600 calories per day, depending on activity level.

3. Stop The “Healthy”/Diet Talk

Our culture has a fear of fat. We disguise it by using words like healthy and unhealthy. What it boils down to is: thin is good and fat is bad. People starve themselves and compulsively exercise in order to achieve the photo-shopped ideal that is portrayed in the magazines. These actions are further reinforced by comments like, “Wow, you look so healthy!” and “I wish I had that kind of discipline.” Our children hear these messages and internalize them the same way that adults do.

Here Are Some Scary Statistics:

  • 95% of people with diagnosable eating disorders are between 12 and 25 years old.

  • Almost half (50%) of 9-11 year olds report themselves as dieting often; of those that diet, 82% of their families report as often dieting.

  • Over half of girls and a third of boys in this age range (9-19) report using behaviors such as restricting meals, smoking, vomiting, and taking laxatives to control their weight.

  • Girls who frequently diet are twelve times more likely to binge eat.

  • Every decade has seen a rise in the amount of 15-19 year old women with anorexia.

  • 86% of people with eating disorders report onset before age 20.

Research has shown that dieting often results in weight gain over time; not to be overlooked in all of this is the link between dieting and eating disorders. Although not a cause, dieting in adolescents has shown a strong correlation with eating disorders.

Many adults with eating disorders will identify adolescence as a time when they began to experience body shame.

What Should Parents Do?

It is important for parents to understand their own fears around weight and how these can impact their children. Once parents better understand these fears and the normal developmental growth, parents need to normalize this for their children. If we are going to talk about being healthy at home then we should talk about it as “healthy” means an adolescent should gain weight, eat more, and sleep more in order to prepare their body for adulthood.

Parents can also help their children learn to listen to their bodies and make intuitive decisions related to food, exercise, and rest.

For more information about eating disorders, please check out my resources page here.


Tamara Werner

Tamara Werner is a counselor, author, speaker, and activist. Her private practice, Get Centered Counseling in Vancouver WA, helps women with food and body issues learn to love themselves, their body, their life, and their relationships. Her life’s work is steeped in personal experience, having fifteen years in recovery for anorexia, in addition to being a breast cancer survivor. An up and coming force in the counseling community, Tamara has been published in a textbook called Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions, and has sat on a panel at the American Counseling Association Conference, where she spoke to her peers on strategies and tools to use with clients struggling with eating disorders. Having a deep, personal understanding of what it takes to recover from this condition, she seeks to be an example to those she treats, to let them know that recovery is possible.