Five Steps a Youth Leader Can Take to Help a Teenager With an Eating Disorder 

The last week of March is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We hope that this article, along with other resources on the blog will encourage and equip you as you seek to love those in your youth group who struggle with an eating disorder.

For about two years during high school, I struggled with an eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa. Basically, my goal was to attain the “perfect” body by losing weight. I didn’t stop eating completely, but I started eating less and exercising more. I became fixated on my body and on the body that I wanted to have (which, in reality, was impossible to obtain).

I had always been close with my family and active in my church, but when I was struggling with anorexia, I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I didn’t like to talk about my eating disorder, and I didn’t want to be approached about it. I was trying to hide from my parents, my sisters, and everyone else who loved me and cared about me. I feared they would encourage me to change my unhealthy behaviors, and I wanted to continue my attempt to attain the “perfect” body.

With anorexia now several years in my rearview mirror, I can see more clearly than I could when I was in high school. Because I experienced this struggle myself, I know what the teenager with an eating disorder needs and desires. 

If there is a teenager in your youth group whom you believe has an eating disorder, I recommend that you consider taking these difficult but significant steps to come alongside him or her on the journey to recovery.

Step #1: Trust that God is in this situation with the teenager—and with you.

No matter how serious the eating disorder is, God is still sovereign over this situation. Before you even approach a student about a possible eating disorder, your mindset has to be one of dependence—dependence on God to guide the teenager (and you!) as you shepherd him or her. Hold on to the truth of Scripture and the hope that it gives to those who are hopeless.  (Psalm 31, Psalm 33, and Psalm 130 are some great places to start).  

Step #2: Be willing to approach the teenager and the teenager’s parents.  

I realize that this step might seem very intimidating, especially if you don’t know a student very well. However, over time, as you get to know him or her, consider the best way to approach the topic of eating disorders. Perhaps you can start by making a general observation about body image, sharing a personal story about a struggle that you’ve had, or asking the teenager to share his or her thoughts on body image. 

It’s also important to consider the best way to approach the topic of eating disorders with the teenager’s parents. If you decide to have a conversation with the teenager’s parents, make sure to share observations and concerns, rather than make bold statements and claims. You may have to be very honest with the parents and ask them very pointed questions, but that’s okay; you aren’t responsible for “fixing” their teenager. A bit of awkwardness might be exactly what’s needed in order to bring the student’s struggle to light.

Step #3: Point the teenager to the right people.

God used my parents, sisters, counselors, doctor, nutritionist, and eating disorder specialist to help me recover from anorexia. As a youth minister, there’s only so much that you can do for a teenager who is struggling with an eating disorder, which is why you should point them to people who can help them more than you can: the student’s parents, christian counselors, physicians, nutritionists, and specialists. 

God has placed other people in that teenager’s life besides just you, and he can use you to point them to others who can come alongside them as they seek recovery. 

Step #4: Never stop praying

While you might be limited in what you can do as a youth minister to help teenagers with eating disorders, there’s no limit to how often you can pray for them. Prayer might seem like a small, insignificant way to deal with something as serious as an eating disorder. However, if you truly believe that God is in this situation, commit to praying for students’ recovery. 

Some specific things that you can consider as you pray for them: willingness to make difficult choices, an ability to see the truth even when the lies feel real, and strength to let go of idols, like body image and weight. 

Don’t let prayer become an afterthought in your life. God works through the effective prayers of the righteous person (James 5:16), and he can work through yours to heal even the most severe eating disorder.  

Step #5: Remember that the teenager’s recovery isn’t ultimately up to you.

I know it’s easy to take on the burdens of the teenagers under your care, including heavy ones like eating disorders. But, ultimately, the decision to recover is a decision that the student has to make; you can’t make that decision for him or her. The teenager has to come to terms with the fact that they are not in a healthy place and that healing is needed. 

Ultimately, the Holy Spirit must work to lead them to surrender control daily. That might take a while, but in the meantime, continue to pray. It’s not your job to fix them, but you can continue to encourage and pray for them.

Closing Thoughts

None of my youth leaders were really involved in my struggle with anorexia. While I don’t blame them for that, I do wonder what my life would’ve looked like if one of them had been.

When Paul was departing from Ephesus, he told the Ephesians, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:32-35 ESV)

Walking alongside a teenager with an eating disorder is an opportunity to get involved in a difficult and messy situation that, through God’s grace, has the potential to become a beautiful story of redemption. 

Paul’s example of selfless sacrifice in the lives of the Ephesians points to Christ’s example of selfless sacrifice on the cross in all of our lives. As you give of yourself to teenagers, including those who struggle with eating disorders, you can experience the true gift of giving to others as Christ has given to us.

God alone must be the teenager’s refuge and strength. But God can use you, the youth minister, as a vessel that pours out hope into the struggle. 

Grace McCready enjoys spending time with her family, hanging out with friends, and watching her favorite TV shows. She is the author of Real Recovery: What Eating Disorder Recovery Actually Looks Like. She shares personal stories + Scripture to encourage young women at her blog, Tizzie's Tidbits of Truth.

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