Q: My 13-year-old son has lost well over twenty pounds in the past six months, and it’s not just puberty and losing “baby fat.” He has developed very strange eating habits.
Before, he ate whatever he wanted and I guess he had become a bit stocky. In sixth grade I heard some kids making fun of him, teasing him with hurtful names. Although he laughed these off, I know the name-calling must have bothered him. Since then he’s become very picky about what he eats. Some days he really only eats one meal although he’s begun to lie to me, saying that I just didn’t see him grabbing a quick breakfast or lunch. He looks skinny to me, but still complains about being too fat.
I’ve heard of girls having eating disorders, but I’ve never heard of a boy with such a problem. Should I be concerned or just chalk it up to adolescence or having a poor appetite?
A: Yes, you should be concerned about your son’s eating behavior. A loss of over twenty pounds during puberty is unusual and generally unhealthy unless it is associated with a prescribed dietary and exercise plan.
We hear so much of girls with eating disorders that boys tend to get overlooked. In today’s thin culture, being skinny is a virtue to most teens and many will do anything to shrink to the pencil-thin torso of models or kids seen on MTV. Quick weight loss is generally unhealthy — especially during puberty when so many hormonal and growth changes are occurring. Extreme dietary restriction often impedes the transition through puberty and can inhibit growth and hormonal patterns.
Psychologically, your son most likely is trying to “look good” and to fit in with the other kids. Being overweight is no fun for anyone, but for teens it’s often a ticket to loneliness and depression. Studies have shown that certain personality types tend to develop eating disorders more than others, particularly perfectionist kids, with self-esteem problems. However, I’ve found that almost any personality type can fall into this trap if the conditions are right — a history of being teased, poor body image, difficulty making or keeping friends and a feeling of not being special in some way. Eating disorders generally have little to do with how much attention or love parents give their children. It’s more a personal issue of how the youngster feels he or she fits in with peers and is highly related to one’s self-concept.
What to do? Here are three steps I advise you to take:
- Sit down with your son and tell him that you’ve noticed the weight loss and changed eating habits, and are concerned about it. Let him know that you understand how hard it is being overweight at his age, and how difficult being teased can be. Once he sees that you understand his situation, there’s a better chance he’ll continue to listen to you.
- Next, explain that you are all for him looking his best and getting into shape, but wish him to proceed in a healthy fashion. Describe the negative physical damage that crash dieting is doing to his body (check with his pediatrician for pamphlets on this if you need further information) and the statistics on how quickly the weight will be regained. Discuss healthy ways to get in shape, particularly the importance of exercise. This not only burns calories, but also builds muscles, which will help to improve his feelings about himself. (Check with a fitness expert to see exactly what exercises are appropriate for a boy his age).
- Lastly, discuss the emotions and hurt that are the bases of his drastic eating changes. Is he depressed, lonely, in the midst of a peer problem or feeling that he doesn’t fit in? Let him know how common these problems are and that few escape adolescence without experiencing a bout or two of these issues. If he feels uncomfortable talking to you about these concerns, you should contact a counselor specializing in adolescent therapy. He may feel more comfortable sharing his feelings with an objective professional rather than a parent.
I encourage you to take this behavior seriously, as the picky eating habits that he now displays may soon develop into a long-term eating disorder that may plague him for years to come.
Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Her most recent book is "Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting" (, 2002). For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright 2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.