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How to Spot an Eating Disorder in a Child

Updated: Mar 15

An eating disorder is a common mental illness that affects people of every age, race, size, and gender. In fact, roughly 30 million people in the United States have some form of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are challenging to recognize in anyone, but it’s especially difficult to recognize them in children. But, there are often warning signs that can help parents, teachers, and caregivers determine if there is a real issue at hand. In this post, White Pine Center for Healing discusses common types of eating disorders, why and how they present in children, and the kinds of treatment available.

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a complex mental illness characterized by abnormal behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes toward food, eating, and body weight or shape. If left untreated, eating disorders can cause an array of long-term physical, social, and behavioral problems, including isolation, depression, and medical complications.

The most common types of eating disorders for children are:

  • Binge Eating Disorder: recurrent episodes in which a person eats immense amounts of food very quickly, often characterized by a loss of control, feelings of shame or guilt after completion, and unhealthy compensatory behaviors

  • Anorexia: a condition in which a child refuses to eat a sufficient amount of calories due to an intense, irrational fear of gaining weight

  • Bulimia: intense periods of overeating (binging) followed by a purge, typically achieved by forced vomiting or the use of laxatives to prevent weight gain

  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: a refusal to eat certain foods due to an intense adversity to their texture, color, taste, temperature, or smell

Children with disordered eating habits may be responding to past traumas and experiences that ultimately dictate their eating habits. Pay close attention to your child’s food intake if they have experienced:

  • Bullying

  • Food trauma like choking or illness

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse

  • Neglect

Of course, eating disorders can potentially affect any child, so it’s essential that parents, teachers, and caregivers know the warning signs.

Common Signs of Eating Disorders in Children

As children grow and develop, their bodies change rapidly. Therefore, it can be extremely difficult to diagnose an eating disorder in a child based on appearance alone. Instead, you’ll want to watch out for any abnormalities in their daily routine. A child with an eating disorder may exhibit behavioral and attitudinal changes, including:

  • Refusal to eat something they used to enjoy

  • Unwillingness to eat in front of others

  • Avoidance of events that involve eating

  • Excessive exercising

  • Tantrums around mealtimes

  • Constipation and digestive problems

  • Sudden fear of choking or vomiting

  • Trouble focusing in school

  • Missed menstrual cycles

  • Mood swings

Because children are impressionable, they may develop an eating disorder if someone else at home or school also has one. It’s not uncommon for young children to imitate older siblings and adults. Therefore, you’ll want to be particularly mindful of your child’s eating habits and attitudes toward food if they personally know someone with an eating disorder.

Additionally, they may show interest in the topic after learning about them in school, in the media, or from friends and family, so pay attention to any obsessive thought patterns that may develop.

If you think your child may have an eating disorder, it’s essential to get treatment quickly to avoid long-term complications that could arise.

Eating Disorder Treatment for Children

Parenting is rarely easy, but when your child has an eating disorder, it can have a substantial emotional impact on the whole family. For that reason, it’s essential to seek professional help as soon as your child starts to display new and abnormal eating patterns that could be an indication of a more significant problem.

Depending on the severity of your child’s eating disorder, a range of treatment options are available to help restore a healthy relationship with food. Most children successfully respond to outpatient care, especially under the guidance of a trusted eating disorder therapist and dietician. Outpatient group therapy can be beneficial for children as it gives them a chance to connect with peers and lessens the likelihood that the disorder will cause them to isolate socially.

In some extreme cases, partial or total hospitalization might be necessary to help a child recover from an eating disorder. Inpatient care is essential if the disorder has caused excessive weight loss, malnutrition, or stunted growth. Additionally, a care team may opt for inpatient therapy if the child needs to be supervised during and after mealtimes.

It’s essential that parents maintain active involvement in their child’s recovery process. Remember to practice patience and never force your child to do something that is overwhelmingly uncomfortable. Doing so can create more food-related trauma, which is a major setback in recovery. Instead, maintain a calm and consistent approach to their eating habits, setting manageable intake goals and helping establish healthy habits.

Caring for a child with an eating disorder can be a scary, often overwhelming experience. Parents and siblings must get the support they need so they may better help their loved one overcome their illness.

Get the Help Your Child Deserves

Eating disorders are serious illnesses that must be addressed swiftly to avoid any serious complications. If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, reach out to White Pine Center for Healing today to consult with one of our in-house treatment experts.

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