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Does your child have an eating disorder?

Child eating disorder

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Does you worry that your child could have an eating disorder? Or are you worried they may be developing one? Eating disorders are complex and difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t suffered from them, with many myths and common assumptions made about why certain people develop these conditions. For a parent, seeing your child develop an unhealthy relationship with food can be traumatic and worrying; we aren’t automatically programmed to know what to do in those situations and often don’t know where to start to help our children back on the right path. The trouble is, the eating disorder usually stems from psychological issues and the relationship with food is just the outcome of the emotional turmoil within, so as a parent, what can you do if you’re worried your child is suffering from an eating disorder?

What triggers them?

These disorders usually manifest out of some form of emotional or psychological issue and sufferers use food to help control how they’re feeling inside. Food restriction is often used to gain control in a certain area of their lives or as a form of self punishment. People who binge on food often use it as a comfort to make up for a lack of empathy or love in certain areas and those that purge will say it helps deal with feelings of self-loathing, guilt or helplessness. What might begin as skipping lunch or forcing yourself to be sick after eating a large meal, may soon start to dominate all thoughts and those that do will quickly begin to obsess over food and weight and will be unable to see themselves objectively, developing a disturbingly warped idea of how they look.

All shapes and sizes

A child doesn’t have to be skinny to have an eating disorder, they come in various guises and although it mainly affects girls, boys are not immune from developing conditions such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. The most important thing to remember is that eating disorders are dangerous; they can lead to serious health complications and can be fatal. Don’t brush it off as a phase or hope they’ll snap out of it.


Anorexia is probably the most well known eating disorder and those who suffer from it will starve themselves, literally becoming terrified of food for fear of becoming fat. It may begin as a strict calorie counting diet and progress into an unhealthy obsession, sometimes with abuse of laxatives or diet pills. People with anorexia may become severely underweight and skeletal, yet still see themselves as fat. If it’s not treated, then it can lead to heart and liver failure, brittle bones, a shutting down of the reproductive system in girls and even death.


Bulimia is often more difficult to spot; it involves a cycle of bingeing on food then purging the body of it. People can consume thousands and thousands of calories in a short period of time then go to extreme lengths to purge the body of the extra calories in order to avoid weight gain. They will exercise to extreme lengths, fast, take laxatives or force themselves to vomit. This will lead to bad breath, wearing down of the tooth enamel and gum disease from stomach acid, as well and risking serious health problems.

Signs to look out for

At first, it may be difficult to distinguish between an eating disorder and general weight concern, self consciousness or dieting, but as the disorder begins to take hold, spotting the warning signs becomes a little easier. The most obvious sign will be restricting food or dieting to extreme lengths. Watch out for your child skipping meals or making excuses to not eat. Claiming they ate a big meal earlier, isn’t hungry, doesn’t feel well or suddenly doesn’t like food that was their favourite can be signs to look for.

Young girl on bathroom scale looking upset

Picky eating

If they do eat, they may become very picky over their calorie consumption, only eat very small amounts or request tiny portions. They might start to obsess over food labels, weigh out portions or begin taking diet pills. While you might easily spot dramatic weight loss, your child will try and disguise their body with baggy clothes and avoid you seeing them with anything which will show off their body; even on the hottest days they may be covered with a hoodie and sweat pants.

Binge eating

Those with bulimia may eat normally around others but store up food secretly or binge late at night when no-one is watching. Watch out for hidden stashes of food, large amounts of wrappers or food packaging or cupboard and fridges that have suddenly been emptied. Once they have binged they will need to get rid of the extra calories so keep an eye on kids that go to the loo after every meal, have a stash of laxatives or start to obsessively exercise. If your child is purging after eating they will probably flush the loo or run the tap to disguise the noise, use mouth wash or mints or spray perfume to mask any smell.

Body image

You should also watch out for signs your child has a distorted image of themselves. Staring in a mirror for hours inspecting, criticising or pulling around at their body may be signs they have an unhealthy view of themselves. People with eating disorders will go to great lengths to disguise their condition and may become sneaky, deceitful and lie to stop anyone finding out, so it’s important to scratch beneath the surface if you have any concerns about your child’s relationship with food.

Speak to your child

If you’re worried your child is exhibiting these behaviours then you should try and address your concerns with them in private and in a non-confrontational way. They may get upset, defensive and deny there is a problem, but try and remain calm and respectful, explaining to them why you’re so concerned. Eating disorders are particularly hard for parents as unless your child is very young, you can’t force them to change and admit there is a problem. Placing a huge meal in front of them and forcing them to eat won’t do any good either, the problem is a psychological one not a physical inability to eat so forcing food into an anorexic may then just cause them to develop bulimia to rid the body of the calories.

Seek help

If they deny there is a problem yet clearly there is, the next step is to seek help from your doctor. There may be other reasons for extreme weight loss or gain but getting help for your child is essential. The earlier you seek assistance they better chance there is of recovery. Many doctors might begin with some form of cognitive behavioural therapy to help address issues around food and eating habits in order to help them gain a healthier approach to food. Counselling with someone trained and experience in eating disorders will also help address the psychological issues behind their relationship with food.

Extreme cases

In more severe cases, if your child is seriously underweight or malnourished, they may be admitted to hospital for essential fluids and nutrients and then may be enrolled on some programme specifically designed to tackle the problem.  There are also an increasing number of residential facilities which are dedicated to helping people with eating disorders, addressing the psychological as well as the physical problems, with trained staff and very strict regulations to help those more critical cases.

There is help out there and as a parent, when you can’t always fix the problem yourself, you can be there to offer encouragement and support which is just as important. Never feel like you have failed your child or that there is nothing to help them. It will be a difficult journey to overcome their condition and they will need your support throughout.




About Rebecca Robinson

About Rebecca Robinson

After spending the last 8 years juggling life as a mum of two, wife and working full time as a Project Manager for a global telecommunications company, Rebecca Robinson made the decision to follow her love of writing and took the plunge; turning her passion into a full time career. Since becoming a full time writer, Rebecca has worked with various media and copy-writing companies and with the ability to make any topic relevant and interesting to the reader, now contributes to The Working Parent on articles ranging from credit cards to teenage relationships. Ever the optimist, Rebecca's dreams for the future include a house in the country filled with children, dogs and horses in the field!

Website: Rebecca Robinson

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