Social Isolation & Anorexia in Teenagers

Teen with an eating disorder on a trail

Eating disorders worldwide have “practically doubled over the last 20 years, and ha(ve) been the highest in adolescence [1].”  It is during this transitionary period that teens begin to notice and internalize societal beliefs related to weight and appearance and show concern with body image [1]. At this time, teen’s social interactions with peers and family are important.

Adolescent Relationships: Social Isolation from Peers & Family

The isolation felt during this time is unique in that a teen can be surrounded by friends and classmates, yet still feel incredibly alone because of the changes they are experiencing.

As such, teens work hard to alter their appearance and behavior in order to fit in and feel accepted.

Because of this desire to appear like everyone else, the eating behaviors of teens, particularly females, become influenced by their peers [1]. Additionally, children and adolescents report believing that being thin would result in being more accepted, more popular, and more likely to have a boyfriend/girlfriend [1]. As such, peers play a crucial role in the development of one another’s personality traits, physical traits, and behavioral trends [1].”

Emotional isolation is not the only risk factor for development of anorexia nervosa. It is also reported that teens described as “antisocial” and that distance themselves physically from their peers have a higher probability of developing anorexia [1].

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Some distance between parent and teen is normal during this time, as the teen explores who they are as individuals and creates their own peer groups.

However, isolation from family is a risk factor for anorexia nervosa. Patients with anorexia report having a good relationship with their families, but note that their family also avoids conflict [1]. This creates an environment where the teen doesn’t talk about their body image struggles and is rebuffed when they do.

Reducing the Risk of Anorexia Nervosa in Teens

It may be frightening for a parent to read these facts, knowing that their teen experiencing changes and interacting with peers is unavoidable. Creating and nurturing certain protective factors can combat the emotional and physical isolation teens may experience.

Protective factors “offer a prognosis of positive development… and inhibits possible problems arising from non-adaptive behaviors [1].” Social skills are an important factor in fighting anorexia nervosa. One study notes that “social skills can prevent factors of risk to health, since it makes the adolescent capable of deciding for him/herself, refusing invitations that are damaging to his/her health, and disagreeing with the group or… society in situations of pressure [1].”

Teenager with guitarIn addition to bolstering a teen’s social skills, studies show that teens are more likely to develop favorable self-image and body acceptance if their relationships to peers are marked by trust, good communication, and acceptance between peers [1].

Studies have consistently shown that “decreasing likelihood of isolation and perceived loneliness” is important for ED prevention and recovery [2]. Showing teens what healthy relationships are and encouraging them to find and nurture those relationships can go a long way.

Social skills and positive peer and familial relationships result in a stronger sense of self, lessening feelings of isolation and loneliness and allowing a teen to feel confident, and supported, in rejecting social pressures that may be damaging to them.

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.About the Author: Margot Rittenhouse is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.


[1]: Uzunian, L. G., Vitalle, M. S. S. (2015). Social skills: a factor of protection against eating disorders in adolscents. Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 20:11, 3495-3508.
[2] Stewart, W. (2004). The role of perceived loneliness and isolation in the relapse from recovery in patients with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Clinical Social Work Journal, 32:2, 185-196.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 2, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 2, 2017.
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