Eating disorders in children and teenagers can be complex and difficult to identify and treat, but the sooner an eating disorder is detected, the better the chances of a healthy outcome for a young patient.
Watching your child struggle with an eating disorder can be upsetting as a parent. It can leave you confused and disappointed and not know where to turn. However, it is important to know that with the right help, children can make a lasting recovery from eating disorders and that you as a parent can play a very important role in this.
What is an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are complex conditions that cause people to develop seriously impaired eating habits. It’s not just about dietary changes or trying to lose a small amount of weight – eating disorders are mental illnesses that can take over a person’s life and the lives of those closest to him. While it is true that eating disorders are most common among young girls, anyone of any gender, age, or background can develop an eating disorder.
People suffering from eating disorders often have an obsession with their appearance, weight, and body shape. This causes them to control or restrict their food intake, causing them to make unhealthy choices about food. These unhealthy behaviours can cause many long-term psychological and physical problems and can even be fatal.
What are the different types of eating disorders?
There are many different types of eating disorders, each with their unique characteristics.
People with anorexia are obsessed with being thin, have an irrational fear of gaining weight, and have a distorted body image (they think 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 ‘cleansing’ behaviours where they try to remove calories from their bodies.
People with bulimia tend to overeat (eat a lot in one sitting) and then make themselves sick, abuse laxatives, or exercise excessively to try to get rid of (cleanse) calories consumed. These excessive cleansing cycles result from an obsessive need to control food intake and can be triggered by stress, anxiety, or hunger. It may be more difficult to detect bulimia than anorexia because a person with bulimia usually maintains a ‘normal’ weight.
Binge eating disorder (BED)
People with binge eating disorder (BED) eat regularly, often eating large amounts of unhealthy foods, even when they are not hungry. However, people with BED do not show any purging behaviour, which means they are more likely to be obese.
Eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS)
Eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS), also called atypical eating disorders, may resemble other types of eating disorders but do not meet the precise requirements for obtaining a formal diagnosis.
What are the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children?
The signs and symptoms of eating disorders can vary in children and also depend on the type of eating disorder. However, if you notice a combination of the following symptoms in your child, he may have developed an eating disorder or is beginning to develop.
- Strenuous or excessive exercise
- Unusual behaviour around food, eg. insisting on using certain cutlery, cutting food into small pieces
- Wanting to eat alone or secretly
- Wearing loose clothing
- Vomiting after eating or going to the toilet immediately after eating
- Eating large amounts without seeming to gain weight
- Weighing again and again
- Social Isolation
- Abnormally low or high weight
- Prolonged weight stagnation Fatigue
- Feeling cold
- Stomach aches
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Mouth infections
- Sensitive or damaged teeth
- Scars on their fingers, joints, or on the back of their hands from infecting themselves
- Bad breath
- Obsessed with the appearance and perception of other people’s bodies
- Talking about feeling guilty after eating
- Getting stressed at mealtimes
- Low self-esteem
- Intense mood swings
- Panic attacks
Why does my child have an eating disorder?
There are a number of factors that make children more vulnerable to eating disorders. These include:
- Having an existing mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety
- Stressful life events
- Pressures at school
- Having hobbies where being thin is important, such as dancing or athletics
Does your child has an eating disorder – The next steps
If you think your child is showing symptoms of an eating disorder, you may find the following steps helpful:
Talk to your child – ask if they are okay and if there is anything they would like to talk about. If your child doesn’t want to talk to you, encourage him to open up to another person he trusts, such as another family member or a teacher. Let them know that you are there to listen and support them.
Take them seriously – it can be hard to understand why someone with an eating disorder acts this way. Some of their food-related problems may seem unreasonable to you, but they can be a major source of distress for your child. That’s why it’s so important to take them seriously and avoid being critical.
Learn about eating disorders – this will not only help you understand your child’s behaviour, but it will also mean you can see warning signs. It also assures your child know that you care and are there to help.
Stop the body and food talk – we’re all talking about diet, body shape and weight, but this can be a very sensitive topic for someone with an eating disorder. Try to distract the conversations from food.
Seek professional help – if you think your child has an eating disorder, seek professional help. Your child will likely need support to prevent their eating disorders from worsening. You can visit your family doctor to discuss your concerns and concerns about your child and they can refer them for specialist treatment at Priory.
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