Behavioral Therapy Techniques You Can Try At Home For Your Teen With Eating Disorders

“I want to leave this place knowing / i did something with my body / other than trying to / make it look perfect”
-Rupi Kaur, Home Body

Using research on eating disorders, this article will help you under the signs of eating disorders in your teen. It will also help you discover behavioral modification therapy techniques that you can try at home with your teen who has an eating disorder.

Although eating disorders appear to be more common in teen girls, keep in mind that your teen boy can also experience disordered eating of any kind.

While this article offers techniques to help your teen with an eating disorder, please keep in mind that eating disorders are serious illnesses and need to be treated by mental health professionals. At Liahona Treatment Center, a therapeutic boarding school for boys, we can help your troubled boy struggling with an eating disorder. Reach out to us today to get help from a team of fully-licensed mental health professionals.

Eating Disorders: when a troubled teen feels like they’re not enough

Eating disorders vary. For example, there’s rumination disorder, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. For this article, we’ll focus on avoidant/restrictive food disorder, anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder.

Avoidant/restrictive food disorder: more than just a picky eater

Many children are often picky eaters. They may shy away from many foods due to their limited palate. As children age, it’s common for them to outgrow their pickiness. If your teen tends to be selective of the food they eat, it might be a sign of your teen’s avoidant/restrictive food disorder.

According to the DSM, a manual used by mental health practitioners to diagnose mental illnesses, this disorder is characterized by:

  • Issues with eating food or certain foods
  • Teens with this disorder often have limited access to certain nutrients
  • They may depend on supplements or feeding tubes
  • They may experience significant weight loss
  • They may have issues with functioning on a social and physical level

Anorexia Nervosa: when weight gain is an extreme problem

Unlike avoidant/restrictive disorder, a teen with anorexia nervosa is extremely afraid of gaining weight. Because of this fear, the teen might have a skewed view of what their body looks like and often might view their body as heavier than it is.

According to the DSM-5, anorexia nervosa is characterized by:

  • Severely limiting food consumption or overeating and purging
  • Intense fear and dislike of weight gain
  • Being below the recommended BMI for their age and height category

According to the DSM, anorexia manifests in 0.4% of women and is more common in women than men.

Bulimia Nervosa: A constant cycle of overeating and purging

Bulimia is an eating disorder associated with excessive food consumption for a short period. According to the DSM-5, for a teen to be diagnosed with bulimia, they need to have engaged in binge eating and purging for over three months and for at least once a week during these three months.

Bulimia is also characterized by:

  • Eating a lot for a short period and a feeling a lack of control while engaging in this behavior
  • Trying to make up for overeating by doing things like over-exercising, vomiting, or using laxatives
  • Teen judging themselves off of their weight and how they look rather than who they are

According to the DSM-5, bulimia occurs in 1%-5% of the female population. It’s also more common in women than men. Additionally, as you’ll see, bulimia is different from binge-eating disorder in that those with the binge-eating disorder might not try to make up for overeating by engaging in purging behaviors (like those with bulimia do).

Binge-Eating Disorder: when overeating is the problem

Binge-eating, like bulimia, involves a feeling of lack of control while eating a lot of food during a short period. According to the DSM-5, binge-eating occurs in 1.6% of females and 0.9% of males. Binge-eating is also common in people who are trying to lose weight.

Characteristics of binge-eating include:

  • Eating alone because of fear of being judged by others
  • Eating a lot of food in a short amount of time
  • Eating so much that the individual feels uncomfortable
  • Feeling depressed or disgusted after overeating
  • Eating when not hungry

Change your teen’s behavior with behavior modification therapy

These eating disorders are all different, and because of that, the behavior modification therapy techniques that we go over will also be different. If you’ve been reading our series on behavior modification therapy and different mental illnesses, you’re aware of this type of therapy’s three common themes.

1. Behavior is learned in one’s environment

Therapists who practice behavior modification therapy believe that a teen learns certain behaviors from their environment. For example, if a child sees a parent that constantly weighs themselves, this teaches the child that monitoring one’s weight is essential.

Likewise, if a teen sees that a parent avoids certain foods, they learn that avoiding food is normal. Keep in mind that the environment also includes a teen’s friends, peers at school, and social standards.

2. Behavior can be changed

If behavior is learned, behaviors can also be unlearned and changed.

For example, the current body positivity movement going on all over the world challenges the idea that bodies should look a certain way. While there’s still a lot of room to grow, these types of movements help diversify what it means to be socially acceptable.

3. Behavior is rooted in positive and negative reinforcements

Some ways to change a child or teen’s behavior is through positive and negative reinforcement.

For example, if you have a troubled teen struggling with binge-eating disorder, you want to change rewarding them with food to rewarding them with other things. The point in doing this is to teach your teen with this disorder that food is to sustain yourself and appreciate. Food is not necessarily a form of reward or a way of coping with stress.

Behavior Modification Techniques to try with your teen

Because of the different types of eating disorders mentioned in this article, we’ll focus on general techniques that you can use with your teen.

1. Compliment your child on things besides their appearance

Instead of complimenting your child on their new dress or how they look in a pair of jeans, focus on complimenting your teen on nonappearance based things.

For example, compliment your teen on their intelligence, their ability to organize their room, and their ability to communicate. Focus on things besides their appearance to teach that the most important things in life aren’t external; they’re internal.

2. Model self-love

If you’re constantly criticizing the way you look or weigh yourself in front of your children, you’re modeling behaviors that contribute to eating disorders. Most eating disorders are rooted in the idea that there’s something wrong with how they look or how much they weigh.

So, the next time you want to call attention to everything wrong with how you look, keep in mind that your child is looking up to you.

3. Identify stressors or triggers

When a teen struggles with an eating disorder, this disorder is often a way of gaining control of a situation or coping with a stressor.

For example, those who struggle with anorexia or avoidant/restrictive eating disorder, monitoring what they eat is a way of controlling their lives. On the opposite end, for those who struggle with binge-eating or bulimia, turning to food can be one way of coping with stress.

As a parent, talk to your teen about potential stressors or triggers. Those who are monitoring food intake, talk to them about alternative ways of coping with fears of uncertainty. Those who struggle with overeating, talk to them about identifying their triggers (i.e., do they feel like it’s safe to binge-eat after school when no one’s home and what they can do in situations like this).

Your teen needs help managing an eating disorder

At Liahona Treatment Center, we can help your teen with an eating disorder. Simply using these techniques at home will not be enough to help with potentially-life altering and endangering illnesses like eating disorders.

Reach out to us today for more information on how we can help your teen.

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