How to tell if your child has an eating disorder

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It can be upsetting as a parent to watch your child struggle with an eating disorder. It can leave you feeling confused and frustrated and you may not know where to turn. However, it's important to know that with the right help, children can make a lasting recovery from their eating disorder and you as a parent can play a crucial role in this.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are complex conditions that cause people to develop severely disrupted eating habits. This isn't just about diet changes or trying to lose a small amount of weight – eating disorders are mental illnesses that can take over someone's life and the lives of the people who are closest to them. While it's true that eating disorders are most common amongst teenage girls, anyone of any gender, age or background can develop an eating disorder.

People suffering from an eating disorder usually have an obsession about their appearance, weight and body shape. This causes them to control or restrict their food intake, leading them to make unhealthy choices about food. These unhealthy behaviours can cause a range of long-term psychological and physical problems, and can even be fatal.

What are the different types of eating disorder?

There are a number of different types of eating disorder, each with their own unique features.


People with anorexia are obsessed with being thin, have an irrational fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image (thinking that they're fat when they're not). People with anorexia try to keep their weight as low as possible and often achieve this by starving themselves and engaging in 'purging' behaviours where they try to remove calories from their body.


People with bulimia tend to binge (eat lots of food in one sitting) and then make themselves sick, abuse laxatives or exercise excessively to try and get rid of the calories they've consumed (purging). These binge-purge cycles are driven by an obsessive need to control food intake, and can be triggered by stress, anxiety or hunger. Bulimia can be harder to spot than anorexia because often, someone with bulimia stays a 'normal' weight.

Binge eating disorder (BED)

People with BED binge eat on a regular basis, often eating huge amounts of unhealthy food, even when they're not hungry. However, people with BED don’t show any purging behaviours, which means that they're likely to become obese.

Other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED)

OSFED, also referred to as eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) or atypical eating disorders, can resemble other types of eating disorder but don't meet the exact criteria for a formal diagnosis.

What are the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder in children?

The signs and symptoms of eating disorders can vary from person-to-person and also depend on the type of eating disorder the person is struggling with. However, if you notice a combination of the following signs in your child, it may be that they've developed, or are starting to develop, an eating disorder.

Behavioural symptoms:

  • Compulsive or excessive exercising
  • Unusual behaviour around food, for example, insisting on using certain cutlery or cutting food into tiny pieces
  • A sudden interest in cooking, but refusing to eat what they've cooked
  • Wanting to eat alone or in secret
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Vomiting after eating, or going to the toilet immediately after eating
  • Eating large quantities of food without appearing to gain weight
  • Repeatedly weighing themselves
  • Social isolation

Physical symptoms:

  • Abnormally low or high weight
  • Long-term weight stagnation (adolescents typically continue to put on weight until the age of 20)
  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling cold
  • Stomach pains
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Mouth infections
  • Sensitive or damaged teeth
  • Scars on their fingers, knuckles or the back of their hand from making themselves sick
  • Bad breath

Psychological symptoms:

  • Having an obsession with appearance and other people's perception of their body
  • Talking about feeling guilty after eating
  • Getting stressed at mealtimes
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Intense mood swings
  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts and impulses

Why does my child have an eating disorder?

There are a number of factors that can make children more vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. These include:

  • Having a close family member with an eating disorder
  • Having an existing mental health problem such as depression or anxiety
  • Stressful life events
  • Abuse
  • Bullying
  • Pressures at school
  • Pressure from the media to be thin
  • Having hobbies where being thin is seen as important, such as dancing or athletics

I think my child has an eating disorder - what are the next steps?

You may find the following steps useful if you think your child is showing signs of an eating disorder:

  • Talk to your child - ask if they're OK and if there's anything they want to talk about. If your child doesn't want to talk to you, encourage them to open up to another person they trust such as another family member or a teacher. Let them know that you're there to listen and support them
  • Take them seriously - it can be difficult to understand why someone with an eating disorder behaves the way they do. Some of their issues around food may seem irrational to you but could be a major source of distress for your child. This is why it's crucial to take them seriously and avoid being critical
  • Learn about eating disorders - not only will this will help you to understand your child's behaviour, but will also mean that you're able to spot the warning signs. It also lets your child know that you care and are there to help
  • Stop the body and food talk - we all talk about dieting, body shape and weight, but this can be a very sensitive subject for someone with an eating disorder. Try to steer conversations away from food
  • Get professional help - it's essential that you get professional help if you think your child has an eating disorder. Your child will likely need support to prevent their eating disorder from becoming worse. You can visit your GP to talk through your concerns and worries about your child, and they may refer them for expert eating disorder treatment at Priory

Our specialists will be able to answer any queries that you may have, and provide guidance on how we could help your child to overcome their eating disorder and resume the healthy, happy childhood they deserve.

Contact us to make an enquiry or for more information

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