Does My Child Have An Eating Disorder?

If you suspect that your teen may have an eating disorder then you are likely to be feeling a sea of emotions, ranging from anxiety and distress to concern and confusion. Thankfully, there’s lots of advice and help out there to get your teen the help they need…

What Is An Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder means that an individual’s relationship with food has changed, and they may use food as a way to cope with difficult situations or emotions. This could involve limiting the amount of food they’re eating, eating a lot of food at one time or trying to get rid of food that they’ve eaten by making themselves sick or fasting. Sometimes people have a combination of these eating disorders.

Types Of Eating Disorder

  • Anorexia – controlling weight by not eating enough, exercising excessively, or doing both.
  • Bulimia – eating a lot of food in a short period of time and then using laxatives or induced vomiting to try to avoid weight gain.
  • BED (binge eating disorder) – losing control and binge eating a lot of food, which leaves the individual feeling uncomfortably full, upset and guilty.
  • ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder) – avoiding or restricting particular foods. This can be due to sensory issues (not liking a certain texture), a low interest in eating or even because of a past distressing experience with food, like choking. 
  • OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) – this is the name for when symptoms don’t exactly match those of the three above, but there is still a serious eating disorder present.

Signs To Look Out For:

Eating disorders are complex conditions and can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders affect males as well as females. In fact, Beat (https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk), the UK’s eating disorder charity, reported that studies have shown that around a quarter of people with eating disorders are male. 

All eating disorders are classed as mental illness and can affect individuals in a variety of different ways but there are some common signs to look out for. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Compulsive or excessive exercising.
  • Wanting to eat alone or in secret.
  • Wearing loose, baggy clothes.
  • Vomiting after eating or going immediately to the toilet after a meal.
  • Weighing themselves excessively.
  • Eating large quantities of food but not appearing to gain weight.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Feeling cold.
  • Stomach pains.
  • Dizzy spells or fainting.
  • Sensitive or damaged teeth.
  • Bad breath.
  • Changes to their menstrual cycle.

You may also notice a change to your child’s mood or personality. They might have developed an obsession with glamorous photos on Instagram, for example, and constantly compare their body in a negative way to others. Other behavioural symptoms to look out for are:

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Mood swings. 
  • Stress at mealtimes.
  • Anger.
  • Self-harm.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Insomnia.

Why Is This Happening To My Child?

Your child may be at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder if they are:

  • Dealing with an existing mental health issue.
  • Experiencing a stressful time in their life.
  • Being abused.
  • Being bullied.
  • Feeling pressured at school.
  • Feel pressure from social media.

It’s also completely normal to feel frustrated and confused as to why your child has an eating disorder, especially if they appear to have a comfortable, supportive home life, are doing well in school and have lots of friends. 

It may be that your teen is unhappy with their shape or size and has developed unhealthy behaviours to try and achieve their perceived ideal. Other teens may be struggling with their mental health or are dealing with stressful events in their life and while you may understand the possible reasons for their eating disorder, you may feel helpless or even, in some cases, guilty, or have a sinking feeling that you have let them down in some way. 

Talk To Your Teen

The first thing to do is to talk to your teen and listen to them. Be gentle in your approach and avoid self-diagnosing them with an eating disorder from the outset. They are likely to become defensive and close-up as they may feel as if they have done something wrong. Instead, pick a moment when you’re both alone and ask about some of the behaviours you’ve noticed. You could say, “I’ve noticed you don’t like to eat with your family anymore. Can I ask why? Is everything ok?”. Reassure them that you’re not there to judge them and reinforce your support by saying things, like, “It doesn’t matter what you say, I will always be here for you and I want to help you.” If your teen clams up, try to encourage them to talk to a teacher or another family member. Don’t take this personally – your teen may be worried that what they say will upset you and doesn’t want to hurt you.

If your teen does open up, be prepared to listen, no matter how hard it might be. Take what they say seriously and try not to brush off their concerns. If you don’t have the solution to anything they might say, be honest. Admit that you don’t have all the answers but that you will try to find out or will reach out to get the answer from someone who is more qualified. Your teen doesn’t expect you to know everything, but they do want you to help them find out how to get better.  

Seeking Help

Seek professional help if you suspect your child has an eating disorder. Talk to your GP about your concerns. They will then meet with your teen to assess and diagnose any issues. There are many different treatments for eating disorders. Your teen will be referred to a specialist who will talk to them about any support they might need and put a treatment plan in place. Talking therapy is often used to identify the possible causes of your teen’s eating disorder and to support them throughout their recovery. 

You may also need help to support your teen through recovery. There’s a wealth of advice and info available on Beat [https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk]. Talk to friends and family about your worries or discuss your feelings with your GP if you feel like you’re struggling with your own mental health. What’s important to remember here is that you and your teen are not alone. There’s lots of professional help and advice out there to support you through diagnosis, treatment, recovery and beyond. 

More Help For You And Your Teen:


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