Eating Disorders in Children

If your child has or is at risk of developing an eating disorder

Diane McGeachy

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist
Hobart, Tasmania

To learn more about our Online Body Image and Mindful Eating Program click here.

What is an Eating Disorder?

There are several types of eating disorders, some common ones include; Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED).

Anorexia nervosa is a mental illness with significant physical complications. It is characterized by intense anxiety and preoccupation with body weight and shape, eating and controlling one’s weight. Someone suffering with anorexia has a distorted view of themselves and may look in the mirror and believe they are fat when in reality they are unhealthily thin.

Bulimia nervosa is more difficult to identify, in that the person usually maintains a normal weight due to binging (eating large quantities of food) and then purging in secret. While people with anorexia may not believe they have a problem those who struggle with bulimia often feel intense guilt and shame about their behaviour.

Binge eating disorder affects men and women equally. It is characterized by eating large quantities of food and not using methods such as purging, laxatives or exercise to compensate. People who binge eat typically experience deep feelings of shame and self-loathing, and feel as though they are out of control and cannot stop themselves from eating.

Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) is considered when an individual presents with extreme disturbances in their eating behaviours and body image but do not meet the full criteria for the above eating disorders. For more detailed descriptions of eating disorders please see Eating Disorders. In addition to eating disorders there also lies a grey area, where a person may not be diagnosed, yet they are exhibiting worrisome perceptions, beliefs and behaviours. Psychological components include body dissatisfaction and poor body image, while behavioural aspects of disordered eating can consist of restrictive eating, binge eating, yo- yo dieting, use of laxatives, compulsive exercising and more.

Why do Children Develop Eating Disorders?

There are many reasons why a child may develop an eating disorder.

  • It can provide a sense of control, specifically while they are developing and have limited control in many areas of their life.
  • Peer pressure, your child may have friends that engage in disordered eating behaviours or feel pressure to look a certain way.
  • Some people are believed to have a genetic predisposition to having an eating disorder.
  • It can be a coping mechanism for other difficulties or trauma in their life.
  • Media influences; presently there is a growing emphasis on looking thin and beautiful.

Signs and Symptoms

A child with an eating disorder often goes to great lengths to hide their struggle, and as a result can isolate themselves. Many people struggling with an eating disorder commonly experience intense feelings of shame, guilt and disgust.

Physical Signs Parents Can Look For:

  • Rapid or frequent weight loss or weight gain
  • Loss of menstrual cycle in females and decreased libido for males
  • Fainting and dizziness as a result of dehydration
  • Feeling cold most of the time particularly in warm weather
  • Swelling around the cheeks or jaw, and damage to teeth (due to vomiting)
  • Feeling tired and not sleeping well
  • Feeling bloated, constipated or developing food intolerances

Behaviours Parents Can Look For:

  • Rigid dieting
  • Completely avoiding specific food groups
  • Obsessed with calorie counting
  • Eating in private or avoiding meals
  • Eating in secret, hoarding large amounts of food in their room
  • Compulsive exercising
  • Using laxatives, diuretics and appetite suppressants
  • Purging/vomiting
  • Making frequent trips to the bathroom after eating food
  • Being evasive when questioned about eating or weight
  • Increased isolation from social networks and activities previously enjoyed
  • Self-harm, substance abuse or suicide attempts

Psychological Signs Parents Can Look For:

  • Obsessive thoughts around body image and appearance
  • Constantly comparing oneself to others
  • Preoccupation with food, eating, weight and body shape
  • Extreme body dissatisfaction
  • Having a distorted body image (seeing themselves as fat even if they are in a healthy weight range)
  • Depression, anxiety or irritability
  • Low self-esteem
  • Becoming very sensitive to comments about weight, food and appearance

What Are the Risks Associated With an Eating Disorder?

The most serious risk associated with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa is death. Unfortunately, some young people with this disorder literally starve themselves to death. Other risks include, iron deficiency, compromised immune system, loss of menstrual cycle, kidney failure, intestinal problems, increased risk of infertility in males and females, heart problems and osteoporosis. Risks specific to bulimia nervosa are; chronic sore throat, inflammation and rupture of oesophagus and stomach from frequent vomiting and chronic irregular bowel movements (constipation and or diarrhoea). People struggling with binge eating disorder are at risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol leading to increased risk of stroke, diabetes and heart disease.

What Can I do If I Suspect My Child has an Eating Disorder?

What you can do:

  • Listen to them
  • Let them know you care about them
  • Arrange to spend quality time together
  • Find support for yourself so that you can better support your child
  • Celebrate who they are as a person instead of focusing on external things such as appearance and their achievements
  • Focus on connecting with your child rather than trying to control their behaviours
  • Become educated about the disorder
  • Ask your child how they would like you to support them
  • Model a healthy body image and relationship with food
  • Be patient, recovery can take a long time
  • Love them unconditionally
  • Arrange for them to access support

What not to do:

  • Rigidly control your child’s diet
  • Make a scene in front of others that shames your child
  • Comment on or criticize your child’s weight or appearance
  • Get angry with them
  • Blame them for having an eating disorder
  • Punish them
  • Pretend that you do not notice and hope that it goes away

What to be Aware of:

As a parent, discovering that your child has an eating disorder is a painful and scary experience. Often because of the significant risk of eating disorders the fear for your child can cause family dynamics to revolve around your child with an eating disorder. This can have negative impact on your other children who may experience feeling unloved, unimportant and unsupported in their own life. This may lead siblings to resent or feel angry towards the child with an eating disorder for demanding the attention of family members and financial resources. What you can do as a parent is ensure your child with an eating disorder is linked in with the appropriate professional services. Additionally, make the time to receive support yourself so that you are able to continue to support your child and family to the best of your ability.

Parents may feel guilt or blame themselves for their child’s eating disorder. It is important to understand that it is not your fault. No family is perfect, and there are numerous influences and factors contributing to someone developing an eating disorder. Caring for a child with an eating disorder can be physically and mentally draining. It can impact you socially, personally, economically and occupationally. It is common to feel distressed and to experience burnout due to the intensive monitoring of your loved one that is sometimes required. It is important to seek support for yourself so that you may support your child while they recover.

If your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder or you suspect that they have an eating disorder, it is important that they seek support from their GP. Research shows a multidisciplinary approach often provides the best outcomes for recovery. A multidisciplinary team may include the following professionals; Psychiatrist, GP, Psychologist, Dietician and other relevant supports. If you would like support for yourself or for your child contact Diane McGeachy.

Diane McGeachy
Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist

Phone: (03) 6285 8592

Hobart Counselling Centre
Level 1,
181 Elizabeth Street Hobart TAS 7000