Every year there are many teens that have health problems and even die from having an eating disorder. Teen eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia can be treated with the help and support of a parent. To help understand the causes and impact of a teen eating disorder and what a parent can do to help, I have interviewed psychotherapist Diane Renz.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a Licensed Psychotherapist in Colorado, providing individual, couples, and group psychotherapy throughout Boulder, Denver, and the surrounding area. The focus of my practice is on Eating Disorders, Anxiety, Trauma, Loss and Catastrophic Illness. I am the founder of Cancer as a Gateway, a 6-week workshop Healing Beyond Cancer, as well as Healing Beyond Anxiety, an ongoing group to provide education, process, support, and specific somatic tools for stress management.”
“I am affiliated with the Eating Recovery Center of Denver, providing outpatient therapy to patients recovering from eating disorders, and facilitated the Evening Intensive Outpatient Program. Patients receive psycho-education in causes and maintaining factors of an eating disorder, awareness of individual temperament and character, Acceptance and Commitment in recovery, and guidance on the pillars of recovery through the science of well being.”
What causes a teen to develop an eating disorder, and how might we prevent this?
“There are many causative factors in an eating disorder. Taking into account the genetic, individual temperament, cultural, environmental, familial, social/relational, emotional, and psychological factors, we might begin to assess a possible preventative road. Having said that, the factors we might address in prevention, are not, in and of themselves the cause. It is a combination of genetics, environment, social, psychological, and emotional factors. As I have heard and agree with what someone once said, “Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger”. By this it is meant, there might be twins who have the same upbringing, and only one develops an eating disorder. In one twin, there was a predisposition for an eating disorder, and when a certain factor in the environment occurs, it manifests in that one twin with disordered behaviors. But just because the gun might be loaded, we might be able to learn how not to pull that trigger.”
“One trigger is the influence of media. Our media focus on weight and attractiveness creates a hostile environment for developing self-esteem, good body image, and values that would lead to behaviors that develop character. Character determines how we will work with our inherited traits, creating the possibility of a balanced, integrated, regulated emotional and behavioral response. With the new findings in neuroscience we can appreciate our brains capacity for change (neuroplasticity), leaving us with the option to grow new neural networks and not feel resigned to our genetic makeup or temperament. If this is the case, becoming conscious to what teens are “consuming” through their senses: the TV shows, commercials, music videos, and the plethora of internet information, with our awareness that they are growing what they focus on, in their brain, we can decide what other focus might be taken in via the senses, that can grow areas of the brain that create connection to self and others and are less reactive to the environment. There is an onslaught of messages that diminish a teens focus to a limited and superficial view—body size and appearance=acceptance and love.”
“With all our senses we take in our world and determine our perspective of ourselves and others, developing beliefs that can lead to expansion or contraction, learn to approach or avoid life. From my experience of raising my daughter, who is now 18, and is not eating disordered, but has this history within her gene pool, I would encourage less media in the early development. TV was a very limited part of her life, I did not have “women’s” magazines in the house and would discuss with her about the images portrayed while being barraged by them at the checkout stand of any store. I continued to raise her awareness (through discussion, contact, and connection), so she would not be lulled by a commercial world into sleepwalking her way into behaviors, determined by a sense of lack, that lead to senseless self destruction of eating disordered behavior. I involved her in nature, being outside, hiking, camping, and horseback riding. I didn’t push, but demonstrated through my own living and playing in nature, so that she could find her own relationship to the outdoors. The necessity of nature in prevention is relative to our need to reconnect to body, spirit, intuition, and emotion. Further, activity in nature provides the integration of bilateral activities within the brain toward healing and health. It is disconnection to these aspects that creates fertile ground for persistent eating disorder behavior that denies the basic cues of the body or other internal attunement. Nature is crucial, and should not to be diminished as a therapeutic intervention or preventive activity. In nature there is rhythm, the natural cycles of life, reflected in nature, exist in us. By being active in nature, we can attune to our inner rhythm, our balance, and our strength, and our power, that is far beyond the limited sense of pseudo- power in how we look and what we weigh.”
“Consider your interaction with a teen and how much you might be addressing looks versus character. It is subtle; we don’t realize when we greet someone that we immediately address how they look. Learn how to receive and see teens, they long for the recognition of the essence of who they are, and fear the measures that will determine if they are good or bad, or accepted or rejected.”
“Do your own work as an adult who interacts with a teen. How do you feel about your body, how do you relate to food, are you hooked into dieting, or the idea that if only I lost 10 lbs then I would be ok. You model good relationship to body, to self, to food, and the teens are watching and learning.”
“You might be asking, what is the one trigger in environment that determines the development of eating disorders. The triggers could be big, like a traumatic event, or small, like a onetime moment of trying on the latest fad diet. But, if we can keep the focus on strengthening connection of the teen to their internal world, teaching a teen (pre teen and earlier) how to relate to and regulate emotion, how to allow the intensity of feeling without feeling a need to avoid, encourage focus and growth of their internal power and core values, while creating external relationships of good modeling, guidance and support with unconditioned regard, there is a chance that whatever trigger may arise, that the ground for possible prevention could be laid.”
“Again, I need to emphasize that there are many causative factors, and the environmental and cultural beliefs presented in the media is just one factor to address. No matter how an eating disorder is caused, it is maintained, in part, by the need to avoid the experience of feeling, especially anxious states. The body becomes an object over which one has control to manipulate and alter in an attempt to order the internal states of emotion. Anxiety is at the root, and if a teen can learn the normalcy of anxiety, how to work with it, how to soothe in healthy ways, and to lessen their identity with their emotion, then there is a chance to keep from behaviors that are negative avoidance mechanisms. (This is further complicated because of a teen’s brain development, which is not fully developed until age 24, leaving the limbic or emotional centers of the brain partly unregulated by the still growing cortex.).”
What type of impact can an eating disorder have on a teen’s life?
“Not to sound too dramatic, but death is one very real outcome of an eating disorder. In addition, eating disorders damage the full development of the brain, cause diminishing bone density, (Osteopenia), which can lead to osteoporosis. I have seen 18-year-old patients with severe fractures due to their eating disorders. There is also reproductive damage and loss of menstruation. Further, a teen’s life gets very narrow, spending 100% of emotional and cognitive focus on food and weight, taking up time with behaviors, spending money on behaviors, losing relationships, or never learning how to relate while relating fully to an eating disorder. It seems that maturations just stops, and someone who begins with eating disorder in early life may be 30, 40, 50 years old, but still working with an adolescent mind and emotion.”
What can a parent do if they feel their teen has an eating disorder?
“Do Not Wait, it is not a phase to get over, and it is not as simple as “just eat”, it is not a character or will issue, but a disease that requires treatment. The sooner treatment is introduced, the easier road to recovery. Find a qualified professional who can assess for eating disorders. The top treatment facility in the country, with a wide range of levels of treatment, is The Eating Recovery Center in Denver Colorado.” Please be aware that parents do not cause eating disorders, but they can either contribute to the maintenance of, or the recovery from, an eating disorder.”
Thank you Diane for doing the interview on causes and impact of a teen eating disorder. For more information about Diane Renz or her work check out her website on www.yourgatewaytohealing.com.
Bulimia Nervosa: Symptoms and Treatment
Eating Disorders: Questions and Answers
Understanding Anorexia Nervosa