Is there a relationship between eating disorders and teasing? I’m worried about my thirteen year old niece who seems to be losing a lot of weight. My sister, her mom, told me that all this started right after a bunch of girls are her school started calling her “chubs.”

Yes, eating disorders have been connected to relational aggression—even among college girls who were involved in bullying in the past. What can happen is a girl becomes the victim of taunts about her looks, which is a vulnerable point for almost every girl at one point or another. If the teasing is about being overweight, the victim thinks the situation will get better if she can only starve herself into thinness. The notion of gaining control of her life by controlling the calories she takes in can also be a misguided attempt at coping. If this was the case with your niece, an initial drop in weight probably garnered some attention, which could provide reinforcement for her to continue restricting so she can stay thin.

What can reverse this negative cycle? A medical evaluation is definitely needed to make sure your niece isn’t in danger from chemical imbalances which can lead to death. Then an honest conversation needs to occur with her about your concern. (I assume her mom has already discussed the situation with her daughter, but there may be added power to both of you sitting down with her together.) Avoid telling her you think she has an eating disorder or focusing on her weight. Instead, tell her you’ve noticed she isn’t herself lately, and emphasize all the positive qualities you value about her. You may even share an experience you might have had where relational aggression effected your self esteem.

Don’t stop with this one conversation. Continue to dialogue with your niece and reinforce her many strengths.

By the way, those boys who develop eating disorders are also often the victims of bullying about their appearance.