Adolescence is a time of physical, mental and emotional growth. The rate of internal change is so fast that mistakes of poor judgment are inevitable. In fact, one of the last parts of the brain to mature involves planning and judgment, qualities clearly lacking for most teenagers. Combine this decision-making difficulty with the penchant for exploration and much of the risk for teenagers is perfectly clear.
In every generation, there appears to be a new, tantalizing frontier that transforms into a universal rite of passage for adolescents. Alcohol, drugs and sex are the three most common concerns, but others have crept in like prescription pills and self-harm such as cutting.
One of the newest adolescents crazes is the drive for thinness. With the expectation for both boys and girls to have unnaturally thin bodies, especially unnatural during the hormonal shifts of puberty, the appeal of weight loss has grown into a standard experience for teenagers. Peer pressure to restrict food, purge meals or take pills such as Adderall, laxatives or diuretics have grown almost unavoidable. Kids can find any number of weight loss guides on line as well to steer them towards these dangerous behaviors.
The thrill of seeing an effect on one's body can be exhilarating to a teenager who feels like life is an out-of-control roller coaster. The sense of pride and accomplishment, albeit one that is small and in the long run meaningless, quiets the constant feeling of confusion and replaces struggling self-worth with an immediate burst of confidence.
It's scary to reflect on just how powerful the drive for weight loss can be in adolescence and how success feels downright magical.
As with all of the destructive behaviors for teenagers, the long-terms risks always escape their notice. Engaging in eating disordered behaviors, especially restricting food, sets off a cascade of biological and psychological responses to starvation.
No one can predict how each child will respond. No one knows if that child will just give up after a day or two, get caught in a cycle of restricting and overeating or be genetically susceptible to develop anorexia. But the increasingly common exposure to starvation for teenagers means those kids are more and more likely to find out.
Until recently, no one would even consider these risks for a child. Eating meals through the day was a matter of course and the drive for thinness nonexistent. Accordingly, the incidence of eating disorders was very small, a rare and mysterious disease people fell into without any idea what was happening. That's not how eating disorders develop anymore.
Adolescence has become a breeding ground for eating disorders, replete with friendships encouraging the behaviors, online groups dedicated to provide support and the social normalization of irrational food restriction. Just as drinking or using drugs at a young age can set that child up for much larger problems, food restriction increases the risk of developing an eating disorder.
However, parents and adults are much less likely to worry about a teenager dieting than about using drugs. Those adults may themselves be restricting food or even encouraging the child to eat less. The social norms actually span generations, leaving teenagers without any idea their behavior is dangerous. The general obsession with thinness leaves children at sea to find a sane way to understand food and weight.
With teenagers dieting and engaging in eating disordered behaviors, there needs to be a public health campaign to counter the false advertising of the food and diet industries. More specifically, children need to understand the risks of their behaviors and the expected norms that will keep them safe.
Adolescents won't necessarily follow the rules because that's the nature of the stage of life. However, exposure to the risks and norms will at least offer them some guidelines to either heed or ignore. It will allow them to know when their decisions are leading them into trouble. It will also give parents, even those struggling with food and weight, a means to teach their children a saner attitude about their bodies.
But who understands these risks enough to spearhead the campaign? And who has enough influence to create awareness of these risks? The next post will address these larger questions.