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Spotting the signs of eating disorders in children and young people
Spotting the early signs of an eating disorder, such as, anorexia or bulimia, is really important to ensure your child or young person gets the support they need as quickly as possible.
Beat is a leading charity who support anyone affected by eating disorders. They have a useful poster aimed at helping parents to identify the signs of an eating disorder which can be downloaded free of charge from their website – 'Spotting the first signs of an eating disorder'
Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is not as well known. It is when a person has an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. This means they are fixated on eating certain foods that they believe is of quality and purity, clean or righteous, and they become consumed with what and how much to eat. They punish themselves with fasts, diets or exercise when they slip-up with their eating obsession. More details about Orthorexia can also be found on the Beat Eating Disorders Website
Be aware that eating disorders do not just occur in girls, more boys are getting eating disorders.
Eating disorders, such as, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa (binge eating) occur mainly among those over 12 years, however anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of their age. In young girls and boys under 12, the most common type of eating disorder tends to be avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder - a lack of interest in food or a sensory aversion to certain foods. A more rare condition in children is pica which is where they constantly eat non-food or non-nutritional substances, such as dirt, soap, chalk, sand, ice, and hair. Another condition to be aware of is emotional overeating which is eating to deal with distressing feelings when they are not pysically hungry.
The signs of an eating disorder in young children may appear different compared to young people. For instance, in children under 12 you may find:
- Lack of weight gain or growth rather than weight loss.
- They eat less, refuse to eat, or make excuses, such as, they no longer like certain foods, not hungry or complain of stomach-aches.
- They may be restless or hyperactive – move around a lot and can’t sit still.
- Increased interest in cooking and food-oriented activities.
Eating disorders present differently in each child, these are just some of the more common signs.
As a parent, you know your child/young person better than anyone else so if you have any doubts about their behaviour – trust your instincts and seek advice.
You can find more details about childhood eating disorders on this page from the Mirror mirror eating disorders help website (note this is a US website).
The National Eating Disorders website has a page on talking to young children about eating disorders which is worth a look for tips on how to tell a young sibling that their sister/brother has an eating disorder.
It is important not to blame yourself if your child/young person has developed an eating disorder. An eating disorder is not caused due to bad parenting – it is a mental health condition caused by many biological and environmental factors.
Demonstrating a good attitude towards all types of foods within your home, as well as planned family meals can help guard your child against eating disorders.
How should I talk to my child/young person about their feelings?
The NHS Choices website has an advice page on how to start a conversation with your child tiled ‘Talking to children about their feelings’
MindEd-for families has a resourceful section on 'Talking to My Child' to help you find ways to communicate to children and teenagers at times when they need it.
Resources to help children/young people explore emotional wellbeing
The Childline website has an eating problems advice page aimed at children.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists website has a list of children’s books - suitable for younger children from preschool to 12 years that cover a range of wellbeing topics.
Suffolk Libraries has a list of self-help books suitable for young people and parent/carers available to request at their local library. Visit www.suffolklibraries.co.uk
Parents/carers can also find various book recommendations to support your child with all sorts of issues from the Suffolk Parent Hub
My child has an eating disorder, what should I do?
If you are concerned that your child or young person has an eating disorder, please do not ignore it. Make a urgent appointment at your GP surgery for support.
Alternatively, you can make a referral or get advice about wellbeing and mental health support services from the Suffolk Children and Young People's Emotional Wellbeing Hub
The Beat eating disorders website has a leaflet you can take along to a GP appointment to help with a referral which can be downloaded here
Does your child need urgent help?
If it's not a life threatening emergency call NHS 111 and they will talk you through what happens next.
Where can I find useful resources?
MindEd-for families is a website funded by the Department of Education, specifically to help advise parents and carers on a range of child related issues. They have useful content about eating disorders on their website, which includes how to talk to your child, manage your emotions, and cope at meal times.
The YoungMinds charity has a leaflet for parents titled ‘Eating problems and your child', which you can download a free digital version of from their website.
Where can I find local support groups and organisations who can help?
Here is a list of local support services and organisations for eating disorders (you can filter the list to find what you need).
Where can I find a useful health and wellbeing App?
If you are looking for helpful phone apps that can provide some in-hand support to a young person struggling with emotional issues, please see our list of the best emotional wellbeing Apps reviewed by young people, which includes an app to help manage an eating disorder.
Who can I speak to for advice?
If you are concerned about the mental health of a child or young person aged 0-25, please contact the Suffolk Children and Young People's Emotional Wellbeing Hub to get advice or make a referral.
The following helplines also offer friendly and confidential advice to parents. They have trained advisers that can help provide answers to your questions.
Beat adult helpline 0808 801 0677
Helpline available every day from 3pm to 10pm. If you can't get through immediately, please do try again. Outside of these hours, you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
YoungMinds Parent Helpline 0808 802 5544
Helpline available Monday-Friday, from 9.30am to 4pm.
Suffolk School Nursing - ChatHealth Text Service
Text 07507 333356 for confidential health advice from the school nurse (available Mon-Fri 9.30am to 4.30pm).
Beats response to recent Government proposal to put calorie counts on menus
The Beat Eating Disorders Charity warns Governments plan to put calorie counts on menus as part of their child obesity strategy could cause great distress to those suffering from eating disorders - read more here