Written by Dr. Joshua Harwood
Josh is a chartered clinical psychologist specialising in working with children and families.
The relationship children and teenagers have to food often changes and fluctuates over time. Experiences such as trauma, bullying, stress and body image issues can all have impacts on their appetites and eating habits. This can include over or under eating, avoiding particular types of food and trialling dieting plans. It is common for eating habits to change and does not necessarily mean there is a cause for concern.
If you are worried that your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, it is important to seek appropriate professional support, even if you are unsure. Getting help as early as possible is vital, as eating disorders can cause significant damage to a child’s mental and physical health. You may also find it helpful to learn a bit more about eating disorders and some tips and tools you can use to help support your child.
When might it be a problem?
In some cases, changing eating habits can be used as coping strategies for intense feelings such as anxiety, sadness, guilt or stress. Eating disorders are often not about the food itself, but instead about the underlying feelings. Children may feel fearful of gaining weight and express dissatisfaction with their body shape and size which can lead them to restricting their food intake. Others may change their eating habits as a way of feeling more in control.
Eating disorders can present themselves in different ways. The two most common types of eating disorder are: Anorexia Nervosa (Anorexia) and Bulimia Nervosa (Bulimia).
Anorexia - characterised by extremely low weight from restricting the consumption of food, often because of concerns over body image.
Bulimia - appears as a cycle of consuming large quantities of food followed by a purging period where they compensate for their food intake by over-exercising or making themselves vomit.
There are other recognised eating disorder diagnoses, which are less common and will not be the focus of this article. These include Avoidant Food Restrictive Intake Disorder (ARFID), Binge Eating Disorder, Pica and Rumination Disorder.
Causes of eating disorders in children
There are many reasons why your child could have a difficult relationship with eating. Eating disorders are very complex and are unlikely to have one singular cause.
There are certain factors that may mean your child is more likely to develop an eating disorder, including:
- A family history of eating disorders or other mental health issues
- Being criticised for their eating habits or body shape
- Having a fixation on being slim
- Having an existing mental health disorder such as anxiety
- Having perfectionist or obsessive tendencies
- Experience of physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- Experience of being bullied
- Having hobbies that encourage certain physiques such as dancing or athletics