Identifying Eating Disorders

Identifying Eating Disorders

What to do if you think your child may have an eating disorder

Eating disorders can often ‘sneak’ up on families, leaving parents bewildered, anxious and frustrated. Parents may blame themselves that they didn’t notice signs before or feel confused at just how different their child seems. Everyone in the family – including siblings – is likely to be affected by the eating disorder. However, it’s important to know that with the right help, young people can make a full recovery from an eating disorder and parents play a vital role in this.

Signs to look out for:

  • Often, we see a significant change in the young person’s mood and wellbeing – they may appear sad, irritable or moody, spend a lot more time on their own and stop doing the activities they used to enjoy.
  • They may become much more focused on food – for example cutting out food groups, talking about calories, beginning to prepare or eat their food separately to the family. You may notice increased anxiety or guilt around eating – questions about what is in the meal; checking calories and seeking reassurance. There may be unusual or ritualistic behaviour – only using a certain bowl or cutlery; eating the food on their plate in a certain order; cutting it into tiny pieces. If your child is bingeing, you may find food goes missing, or empty food wrappings in their room.
  • In addition to a focus on food, your child may be engaging in self-induced vomiting or excessive exercise – are they spending lots of time in the bathroom or exercising in secret?
  • Negative body image is a key component of an eating disorder – your child may seek reassurance that they are not fat; start wearing baggy clothes or avoid situations such as the beach or parties. For some young men and boys, the focus may be on developing muscles and appearing very lean.
  • Eating disorders have a significant physical impact too – you may notice your child has lost weight or that their weight appears to fluctuate significantly. They may complain of feeling cold; find it harder to walk up the stairs, experience faintness or dizziness. They may also complain of stomach aches or constipation. In girls, periods may stop or be delayed. Eating disorders also affect the brain, so you may notice your child struggling more at school, with poorer concentration and recall.

What should I do next?

  • Talk to your child Gently ask your child if there is anything worrying them – it’s best to do this away from meal times. Sometimes a young person with an eating disorder may not see that there is a problem and might actively avoid seeking help. Talk to teachers to see if they have noticed anything.
  • Recognise your own emotions Eating disorders are scary and understandably lead to fear and anxiety in parents. Anxiety can lead to frustration and anger which often reinforce the eating disorder. Try to stay calm, compassionate and on your young person’s side.
  • Get educated There is a lot of misinformation and myths out there. Learning about eating disorders will help you understand what your child is going through and leave you better placed to help.
  • Get professional help early It is essential you seek professional help for your child. Eating disorders are dangerous and don’t get better on their own. Research tells us that early intervention has the best outcomes. Make sure you find a team who are experienced in treating young people with eating disorders.

A final note:

Parents often worry about why their child developed an eating disorder and whether they are to blame. In fact, how eating disorders start is complex and there are often many factors involved. Parents and families are not to blame for young people developing eating disorders but, as we said at the top, play an essential role in supporting a young person to recover.

Written by: Dr Victoria Mountford
Eating Disorder Service Lead

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