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Eating problems

Children can sometimes be picky about food, refuse to eat certain things or sometimes eat more than they usually would. This is quite natural and doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong. However, for some children and young people, food and eating can become a problem and develop into an eating disorder. This is nobody’s fault, and it can be scary for them and for you.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that can affect anyone, but they are treatable and there’s lots of help out there. Here you can find out more about eating disorders, the signs to look for and what to do if you’re concerned about your child.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that can affect anyone. The most common eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia, where a person tries to keep their weight as low as possible by strictly controlling and limiting what they eat. They may also over exercise.
  • Bulimia, where a person eats large quantities of food and then tries to get rid of the food by ‘purging’ – for example, by making themselves sick or taking laxatives (medication that makes you poo).
  • Binge eating, where a person eats large quantities of food over a short period of time and can find it difficult to stop.

If someone has eating problems that don’t exactly fit these symptoms, they may be diagnosed with an “other specified feeding or eating disorder” (OSFED). This is very common, and is just as serious as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. People suffering from OSFED need and deserve treatment just as much as anyone else with an eating disorder. You can find out more about OSFED on the Beat website.

Some conditions involve food and eating but aren’t related to concerns about weight or body shape. These include avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). ARFID causes a person to avoid certain foods or types of food, restrict how much they eat, or both. You can find out more about ARFID on the Beat website.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, gender, or background. Eating disorders can be seriously damaging to health, and can also have a negative impact on school, work and social life.

People with eating disorders don’t choose to have them and can’t help being ill. So if your child or teen develops an eating disorder, it's important not to blame yourself or them. It’s not your fault – or anyone else’s. It’s much more important to concentrate on the things you can do to support them to get better.

What causes eating disorders?

Photo of a mum and daughter hugging

Photo of a mum and daughter hugging

It might seem strange, but although people with eating disorders can be obsessive about their weight, eating disorders aren’t all about food. Instead, the eating behaviour might be a coping mechanism for stress or a way to feel in control. You can find out more about the possible causes of eating disorders on the NHS Inform website.

While you can’t prevent your child or teen from developing an eating disorder, there are things you can do to encourage them to feel more confident about their bodies and themselves as they grow up. You can find tips for helping them have a good body image here.

What are the signs my child may have an eating disorder?

People with eating disorders often try to hide them, which means spotting the signs can be tricky. However, some signs to look out for are:

  • Regularly skipping meals or telling you they’ve already eaten
  • Being secretive about food and what or how much they’re eating
  • Obsessive calorie counting
  • Being self-consciousness about eating in front of other people
  • Low self-esteem
  • Having distorted beliefs about their body size
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Tiredness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Becoming withdrawn from family of friends
  • Appearing guilty or anxious
  • Suddenly losing or gaining a lot of weight
  • Wearing very loose clothes to hide their body
  • Becoming obsessed with exercise or being very fidgety and unable to sit down
  • Disappearing from the table after meals (in order to make themselves sick)
  • Saying they’re unhappy with their body
  • Large amounts of food missing from the kitchen.

Of course some of these can just be normal teenage behaviour and nothing to worry about. But if you notice a few of these signs or you have a feeling that something isn’t right, it’s best to trust your instincts and talk to your child.

You can find out more about different eating disorders and what to look out for if you’re worried on the Beat Eating Disorders and NHS Inform websites.

How can I talk to my child or teen about eating disorders?

You may be worried about how to approach your child if you’re concerned they may have an eating disorder. People with eating disorders often don’t realise they have a problem, or try to hide what’s going on, so may deny that anything’s wrong if you ask them. But lots of people who’ve recovered from eating disorders agree that bringing the problem out into the open is the right thing to do, even if they didn’t feel that way at the time. Because the sooner your child or teen gets treatment, the greater their chance of a full and lasting recovery.

Here are some tips for starting the conversation with them.

What should I do if I’m concerned my child or teen has an eating disorder?

If you’ve talked to your child about your concerns, well done. This is the first step to helping them get better, and it’s not an easy one. The next step is to help them get treatment. An eating disorder is an illness, and like all illnesses, the sooner it can be treated the better. (Although this doesn’t mean that if someone has had an eating disorder for a long time they won’t get better.)

The best place to start is with your GP. If your child refuses to come to an appointment with you, you can always talk to your GP yourself about your concerns. Whether you talk to the doctor with your child or alone, Beat have a really helpful pdf on their website that you can download and take with you to your GP which will help you explain the situation to them.

Ideally, your GP will refer your child to a specialist who can help them. If your child is under 18 and refuses to receive essential treatment, you may be able to overrule them if this is in their best interests. You can find out more about how the NHS can help, your child’s rights as a patient and what to expect on the Healthcare Improvement Scotland website.

Eating disorders and social media

Photo of a teen on their phone

Photo of a teen on their phone

Eating disorders can be caused by a wide range of reasons that still aren't clearly known. However, our obsession with "perfection" on social media is often blamed. Some posts and websites even represent eating disorders as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness. You can find out more about the dangers of ‘Pro-Ana’ and ‘Pro-Mia’ web content (content that promotes anorexia and bulimia) on the Beat website.

It’s important to talk to your child regularly about the kind of websites they visit and the people they follow on social media, so you can pick up any warning signs early on. Our pages on talking to your child about online safety and online safety for teens have tips on how to do this.

Looking after yourself

If your child has an eating disorder, this can be stressful and exhausting for you and everyone else in your family. So it’s important to look after yourself too, or you might find it more difficult to support anyone else. Talking to a trusted friend or joining a support group can really help. You can find out more about looking after yourself if you’re supporting someone with an eating disorder on the Beat website.

Help and support

If you’re worried that your child may have an eating disorder, or if they’ve been diagnosed with one, you may feel upset, stressed, worried and alone. But it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. There’s lots of help out there for your child, and for you and your family.

Beat Eating Disorders

Beat offers lots of help and support for people with eating disorders and their families, including helplines, web chat, resources and chat rooms. You can find out more about Beat’s support services in Scotland here.

Beat also offers the following support for people caring for someone with an eating disorder:

  • Developing Dolphins is a free online training course for anyone caring for someone with an eating disorder. Learning online over five weekday evenings, you’ll find out more about eating disorders, gain an understanding of the driving forces behind them, and learn some techniques to help your loved one in recovery and look after your own wellbeing. You can find out more about Developing Dolphins here.
  • Solace is a free video-based support group hosted weekly over Zoom. It's for anyone supporting somebody with an eating disorder and gives you the opportunity to share your feelings and get support from others in a similar situation. You’ll also get the chance to raise any questions you have and, where possible, to speak with a Beat Ambassador, a person who has recovered from an eating disorder themselves. You can find out more about Solace here.
  • POD (Peer support and Online Development) is Beat's online carer community designed to provide people supporting someone with an eating disorder with a space to learn, share experiences and find support. Access to POD can be found here. On your first visit to the platform you'll be asked to create a log-in, after doing this, you'll gain full access to the platform and will be able to use the forums, complete e-learning modules and book onto workshops.
  • SPOT (Schools Professionals Online Training) is an e-learning hub that enables school professionals to help pupils into treatment quickly. You can find out more about SPOT here.

Cared

Cared offers resources for parents and carers of young people (aged up to 25) in Scotland who have recently received a diagnosis of an eating disorder and are about to or have just started treatment.

Talk-ED

Talk-ED offer 1-to-1 support calls for people with eating disorders and their loved ones. You can find out more about their services on the Talk-ED website.

YoungMinds

YoungMinds have information on eating disorders for parents and for young people. They also offer a helpline and webchat and email services for parents who are worried about their child’s mental health.

Last updated: 26 Jan, 2023