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How Teens Can Help Teens With Eating Disorders

Silver Hill Hospital

It’s been said that a friend in need is a friend indeed, but it can also be terrifying if you are stressing over the right thing to do.

Let’s say you notice that a friend or classmate keeps skipping out on lunch and is losing weight. Or maybe he’s obsessed with the gym – he’s there all the time and checking his muscles, while only eating one power shake a day. Or it could be that your classmate runs to the bathroom every day after lunch and you begin to think she’s purging. How do you help someone who you now strongly suspect is struggling with an eating disorder, who is attempting to change body weight or shape in a risky manner?

You ask yourself if you should confront your friend. Maybe you see yourself in the role of a therapist, listening and offering advice because you have a close relationship. Or perhaps you wonder if you should call  the parents or guardian, and then think it might be a betrayal if you do and a lost opportunity if you don’t. Maybe you should just let it go until someone else steps in?  An issue like this can get really tricky, really quickly.

Fortunately, as a psychiatrist with expertise in treating eating disorders, I can offer some tips that can help you navigate this complicated situation:

  1. First, do not try to be the therapist, doctor or parent. If you have a strong and trusting relationship with your peer that’s great! You can use that to express non-judgmental concern about the behaviors you have noticed and suggest he or she seek help from an adult.  Trying to rescue another teen beyond that can be dangerous, both medically and to your friendship.
  2. Visit the National Eating Disorders website: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/help/caregivers

They have loads of information on how to help friends, family or even yourself with an eating disorder.

  1. Understand that you cannot help to fix an eating disorder with compliments about outer appearance. Focus on the inside, not the outside. When a person makes an extreme attempt to feel better on the inside by changing the outside, it is often a sign of lower self esteem. It can also be a sign of depression, trauma, anxiety or something else that needs professional attention along with your friendly support.
  2. Avoid gossip. Other people may want to talk about the situation because something looks off or strange and it makes them nervous. Avoid the crowd when YOU need to talk about it, and reach out instead to a guidance counselor, another trusted adult, or your parents. 
  3. Take care of yourself. You’ve heard that one about helping a drowning person can lead to you drowning instead…
  4. Know you are not alone in this. Remember, eating disorders of all kinds are often seen in teenagers  so there is a lot of support out there for those who are looking to help.  Accept it!