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How Do I Know if My Child Has an Eating Disorder? 

How Do I Know If My Child Has An Eating Disorder? 

Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that can have serious consequences on physical and emotional well-being. Recognizing the early signs of an eating disorder is crucial for prompt intervention and treatment. Parents play a crucial role in identifying these signs and supporting their children through recovery. 

From Where Do Eating Disorders Stem? 

Children are no strangers to bullying at school. A child can come from the happiest home and still feel insecure and “not good enough” around peers. Bullying is a big part of developed eating disorders. Many times, a child is happy with themselves until someone says otherwise. This can start a long, rocky road of self-criticism and anxiety, as well as potential disordered eating. 

 Bullying is not the only factor, however. Disordered eating behavior can start as wanting to get healthy. It can develop as a peer activity, especially with adolescent girls. It may have to do with wanting to be better at their sports activity. Simply, there are many ways that disordered eating can develop, even when a lifestyle change begins as healthy. 

Disordered eating isn’t always straightforward. It isn’t always restricting food. Disordered eating could be obsessing over calories, protein count, or the amount of carbs consumed. Sometimes the amount of food is not changed, however the amount of exercise significantly increases. This is not to say that changing diet or adding more exercises is inherently bad; looking and feeling better is an amazing confidence booster. It is not the act of dieting or exercising, but the motivation and potential obsession behind it. 

Was it my fault?  

Many times, when parents learn that their child has significantly changed their normal behaviors around food, it is easy to blame themselves. “Did I say something to hurt their confidence?” Parents may feel that their own childhood upbringing might have seeped into their own parenting style. “Am I too hard on them? Am I too hard on myself and they see me do that?” It is quite easy to guilt oneself and feel like a bad parent. But that way of thinking is not only probably untrue, but also not helpful to finding a solution as quickly as possible.  

Recognizing Early Signs of Eating Disorders in Adolescents 

1. Changes in Eating Habits: 

   – Restrictive Eating: A sudden reduction in food intake, skipping meals, or avoiding certain food groups can indicate restrictive eating behaviors characteristic of anorexia nervosa or orthorexia, an obsession with eating “healthy” and “pure” foods*.  

   – Binge Eating: Consuming large amounts of food in a short period, often accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame, may suggest binge eating disorder. 

   – Picky Eating: Extreme selectivity about food choices, accompanied by anxiety or distress around eating, might be a sign of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). 

*According to the OCD center of Los Angeles, Orthorexia has not yet been accepted as a formal diagnosis by the psychiatric community and has not been defined within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV). However, since first being described by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997, many health professionals have observed the often-debilitating results of this condition. 

 2. Body Image Concerns: 

   – Obsession with Weight and Body Shape: Constant preoccupation with weight, body shape, and appearance, along with frequent body-checking behaviors, could indicate body dysmorphic disorder or bulimia nervosa. 

   – Distorted Body Image: Expressions of feeling “fat” despite being underweight or average weight may indicate body image distortion, common in anorexia nervosa. 

3. Changes in Physical Health: 

   – Weight Fluctuations: Rapid weight loss, weight gain, or fluctuations in weight without a medical reason may signal an underlying eating disorder. 

   – Physical Symptoms: Complaints of feeling dizzy, weak, or fatigued, along with frequent headaches, stomachaches, or gastrointestinal issues, can result from malnutrition or purging behaviors. 

4. Behavioral and Emotional Changes: 

   – Social Withdrawal: Avoidance of social activities that involve food, isolation, or withdrawal from friends and family may indicate distress around eating and body image. 

   – Mood Swings: Irritability, moodiness, anxiety, or depression, especially around mealtimes or discussions about food, could be signs of emotional distress related to an eating disorder. 

   – Perfectionism: Heightened perfectionism, excessive self-criticism, or striving for unattainable standards may contribute to the development or maintenance of an eating disorder. 

5. Obsessive Exercise: 

   – Compulsive Exercise: Excessive, rigid exercise routines, driven by a need to “burn off” calories or alleviate guilt after eating, may indicate exercise bulimia or compulsive exercise disorder. 

6. Secrecy and Rituals 

   – Hiding Food: Hoarding food, sneaking food, or disposing of food in secretive ways may indicate shame or guilt associated with eating. 

   – Ritualistic Behaviors: Engaging in rituals around eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, rearranging food on the plate, or eating meals in a specific order, can indicate obsessive-compulsive tendencies related to food. 

7. Academic and Behavioral Decline: 

   – Decline in Academic Performance: Difficulty concentrating, poor memory, or a decline in academic performance may result from the cognitive effects of malnutrition or emotional distress associated with an eating disorder. 

   – Changes in Behavior: Increased irritability, impulsivity, risk-taking behaviors, or substance use may occur as coping mechanisms or attempts to manage underlying emotional distress. 

What does this mean for my child? 

The list above is not exhaustive. Children may exhibit some of these behaviors for a short period of time, but then stop. Moodiness and irritability do not immediately mean something is terribly wrong. A lot of children go through picky eating phases. Academic decline does not always stem from malnutrition, etc. 

This list should act as a cautionary guide for parents. Keep an eye out for patterns of behavior overtime. Seeing the signs is the first step into treating the problem. Learning to communicate with your child in the right way to help them feel safe sharing their feelings is astronomically important.

Conclusion

Early intervention is critical in the treatment of eating disorders. Parents should be vigilant in recognizing the early signs and symptoms, maintaining open communication with their children, seeking professional help when necessary, and providing unconditional support throughout the recovery journey. By being proactive and supportive, parents can play a pivotal role in helping their children overcome eating disorders and achieve long-term health and well-being. 

Reviewed By:
Bethany Keith, LCSW 
Written By:
Megan Witt, LPC-MHSP