How To Know If Your Child Has An Eating Disorder

by Kimberly Zapata
Mayur Kakade/Getty

Eating disorders in children and teens are relatively common. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as many as 10 in 100 young women suffer from an eating disorder, and I was one of millions. I began poking, prodding, and judging my body at 13. By 14, I was exercise obsessed. I did push-ups and crunches constantly. There were imprints on my back from the carpet from the crap scattered on my unvacuumed floor. And by 15, I was restricting food. I limited myself to 800 calories, or one meal a day. And while I never had full-blown anorexia or bulimia — my official diagnosis was an eating disorder not otherwise specified, or EDNOS — my illness was nearly incapacitating. It controlled me, through and through. But my parents had no idea. Why? Because the symptoms of eating disorders in children and teens aren’t always obvious.

“While many people think that weight loss is the ultimate indication of an eating disorder, in many children, we actually see the absence of weight gain,” Erin Parks — a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Equip — explains. “A child should weigh more at age 15 than they did at 13, for example. When a child falls off their growth curve, it is often due to an eating disorder.”

Here’s everything you need to know about eating disorders in children, teens, and young adults.

What are the different types of eating disorders?

While there are only five clinically recognized eating disorders — anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, muscle dysmorphia, binge eating disorder (BED), and other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED) — there are numerous “unofficial” conditions. Compulsive overeating, for example, is a term used to describe those who eat large quantities of food all day long. Orthorexia nervosa is a term used to describe someone who becomes so obsessed with planning the perfect diet that it disrupts their life, and pregorexia describes pregnancy-induced food restriction and/or starvation.

What causes eating disorders?

There’s no single cause for eating disorders. In fact, one’s environment, genes, and life circumstances can all play a role. However, those with eating disorders usually have a diminished sense of self, or low self-esteem. Poor body image is also common, and playing sports and/or engaging in activities that focus on weight can make an individual more vulnerable. Dieting at a young age can also predispose children and teens to disordered habits, thoughts, and behaviors.

What are the most common symptoms of eating disorders, particularly in teens and children?

While the signs of eating disorders vary from person to person — and child to child — many symptoms are the same. “Your child or teen may be suffering from an eating disorder if they display and/or engage in uncomfortable behavior during mealtimes, a general preoccupation with food, excessive exercising, refusing to eat certain foods, choosing ‘low fat’ options, and/or playing with food or eating very slowly,” Jillian Walsh, the lead registered dietitian and therapist at Change Creates Change Eating Disorder Care, tells Scary Mommy.

But that’s not all. Kerry Heath — a licensed professional counselor — tells Scary Mommy there are numerous other signs and symptoms:

– Weight loss or failure to meet expected weight gains, changes to their growth chart patterns

– Refusal to eat foods that were previously enjoyed or requested

– Talking frequently about weight, dieting, healthy, or clean eating, or rules about food (i.e., no sugar, no carbs, no fat)

– Wearing baggy clothing or clothing inappropriate for the season (i.e., sweaters when it is hot)

– Negative self-talk, especially as it relates to their appearance or the appearance of others

– Skipping meals, refusing to eat with family, throwing food away, etc.

– Going to the restroom or exercising after meals

– Large quantities of food missing and/or food wrappers being hidden

– Social isolation, school refusal

– Mood fluctuation, irritability, anxiety

– Sleep disturbances

– Physical symptoms such as stomach pain, dehydration, dizziness, sore throats, cavities/tooth decay

“More serious physiological symptoms may include weight loss, gastrointestinal issues, feeling cold often due to a lack of circulation to extremities, and impaired immune function,” Walsh adds.

What can you do if you suspect your child has an eating disorder?

If you believe your child has an eating disorder and/or may be struggling with food or their body image, know this: there is both help and hope. Recovery is possible. “If a parent suspects their child has an eating disorder, it’s important to talk with your child. Be calm, direct, and caring,” Walsh explains. “Discuss their behaviors with a physician, therapist, and dietitian, all of whom are considered eating disorder specialists [and an essential part of their recovery team].” And know they don’t need to recover alone. There is help for you, as a parent, and for your child.

You should also create a healthy environment. Parks tells Scary Mommy you should “structure your home environment for pro-health behaviors. If you want your child to eat breakfast, eat breakfast with them. Do not eliminate entire food groups from your home. Adopt an ‘all food is good food’ mentality. And, if you want your child to love their body, model for them by how you embrace your own body. Learn about the fat-phobia and diet-culture in our society, and teach your kids to be informed consumers of our culture.”