Eating Disorders and Adolescence

Image is of a woman staring at the sun rising or setting on the horizon.

Image is of a woman staring at the sun rising or setting on the horizon.

Next week at a high school in Camas, WA, I will be speaking to a group of parents about eating disorders in adolescence. We’ll be covering warning signs, parent interventions, getting help, and much more. Here is a brief overview of some of those topics.

Did you know that the incidence of eating disorders has been on the rise since the 30s AND the age of onset is getting lower?

The median age of onset for an eating disorder is between 12 and 13 years old, according to research performed in 2011, which you can read more about here. For those of you that need a refresher on how the median is determined, that’s when the numbers are listed in order from least to greatest and the number exactly in the middle is picked. That tells us there were just as many ages listed below as above, but it doesn’t give us any information about the exact ages.

Signs & Symptoms

  • Increase or decrease in weight, or weight fluctuations
  • Fear and/or obsession with weight gain
  • Restricting food and/or eating large amounts of food (maybe even in secret)
  • Feeling out of control around food
  • Obsession related to exercise
  • Throwing up or taking laxatives or diet pills
  • Obsessively weighing oneself
  • Self-esteem that is dependent upon weight or body image

*It is important to note that not all of these signs need to be present. In fact, if someone presents with one or more of these signs it is recommended that you seek the help of an eating disorder specialist.

What Can Parents Do

Often times a person with an eating disorder is not able to appreciate the severity of the situation. That is the nature of the disorder. The brain gets “taken over”, if you will, by the eating disorder and signs that are obvious to others, like malnutrition or decreased energy, are ignored and normalized by the eating disorder.

Advocate. Although they don’t want it, they need it. Advocate for your child to help him or her find a counselor, dietitian, and physician who specialize in the treatment of eating disorders. The good thing is that usually when you find one of these he or she will be able to refer you to the others in the field.

Separate. It is difficult to deal with someone with an eating disorder. Watching people you love starve themselves or risk a heart attack by purging can be infuriating. Although difficult it is important to try and separate your loved one from the eating disorder. Get angry at the eating disorder and remind yourself that it has “taken over” your child.

Educate. Eating disorders are complex and potentially life threatening. There are some books and websites that I recommend to families in my office, check them out here.

Getting Help

Due to the complex nature of eating disorders, it is vital that the counselor, dietitian, and doctor you pick are specialists. Think of it like this, if you had a problem with your heart you wouldn’t go to your general practitioner, you’d go to a cardiologist.

It will be expensive, it will be exhausting, and it will be worth it. Research has shown that treating eating disorders in adolescence can result in complete recovery.

Having a separate eating disorder therapist for the family is highly suggested. The family therapist will be helpful in navigating the recovery process, keeping the family informed and educated about what is to be expected, and working with all the members of the family to discover a new normal after recovery. I have heard of it being referred to as a saving grace for families!


If you are looking for an eating disorder counselor in Vancouver, WA or Portland, OR for individual or family counseling please reach out to me through my website here.

If you are not in my area, but are still looking for resources, I would like to try and help you find someone in your area. Head on over to my website and send me an email 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.