Have you noticed some irregularities in your child’s eating patterns, mood, or appearance? You may be unsure if this is just part of their natural development, or a sign of a more serious eating disorder.
Studies indicate that 62% of teenage girls and 29% of teenage boys are actively trying to lose weight (1). It’s important for parents to be tuned into the warning signs of eating disorders and to know when and how to intervene. If you have concerns about your child’s relationship with food, you've come to the right place.
As parents or caregivers, you know your kiddo best. You are the expert on their likes, dislikes, habits, and moods. You will notice any changes in their day to day routine and interests before anyone, which is why it is important for you to know some of the warning signs related to an eating disorder. Let’s start with reviewing some of the red flags.
What Eating Disorder Signs and Symptoms Should I be Looking For?
1. Abnormal Weight Changes
Your child’s weight is typically pretty predictable and usually trends on the same growth curve. Any significant change from this as seen in abnormal weight gain, weight loss, or plateau in weight can be red flags. Especially if this change is coupled with your child feeling weak, tired, cold, and experiencing hair loss.
2. Eating Patterns Change
Has your child recently expressed interest in trying the newest fad diet? Or wanted to take a shot at living a vegan lifestyle? Have they voiced interest in eating healthier which has led to avoidance of their favorite foods such as pizza, french fries, desserts, and pasta?
Take note because these could all be forms of restrictive eating and your child’s way to achieve weight loss. You may also notice your child has started to eat individualized packaged foods or has not wanted to go out to eat with friends or family. These signs can all point towards wanting control over food choices and knowing the exact calories or ingredients in the foods they are eating.
3. Missing food
Those struggling with an eating disorder can feel intense guilt or shame around food. This can lead to eating foods in secrecy or trying to hide how much they have eaten. Finding food wrappers in places like your child’s desk, bedroom, or backpack, or noticing bags of food go missing throughout the week can all be signs that your child’s relationship with food is becoming disordered.
4. Physical activity increases
Those struggling with an eating disorder may engage in compulsive exercise as a way to control weight or feel deserving of food. Monitor for changes in frequency, duration, and intensity of exercise. Notice if your child is continuing to exercise despite feeling run down, healing from an injury, or making additional time to exercise outside of sports practices.
5. Increased focus on appearance
While it is normal for pre-teens and teenagers to show some preoccupation with appearance, if your child begins to repeatedly compare their physical body to others, it may be a warning sign of a bigger concern. You may notice they are spending more time in front of the mirror, skipping out on days at the beach with friends, and wearing baggy clothes. Be mindful of your child making comments about not liking the way they look or wanting to change their appearance.
6. Change in demeanor
Your child who was once outgoing, sociable, and friendly has become more irritable, introverted, and withdrawn. Someone who once enjoyed going out with friends may become more of a home-body and avoid social interactions. Especially, if there is food involved. Eating disorders are secretive and your child may not want friends or peers to notice their change in eating habits and avoid situations that involve food.
7. Increased interest in cooking or baking
Your child might have picked up a new hobby, like cooking. This may be a way for them to feel in control over how certain dishes are prepared or it could be their preoccupation with food as a signal from their brain that it needs energy. Your child could be cooking or baking for others more often, but never sampling the meals or desserts they prepared. This newfound hobby is a staple for those struggling with eating disorders.
I Think My Child May be Showing Signs of an Eating Disorder, Now What?
If you believe your child is showing warning signs of an eating disorder, the best thing you can do is to talk to them in a loving and compassionate way to express your concerns. Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, so the sooner you are able to address any red flags and warning signs, the sooner your child can get the help they need. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician to share your concerns and can help detect the onset of an eating disorder. The earlier you intervene, the greater the chance that your child will make a full recovery.
Feeling like you need some guidance on what steps to take next? We are here to help. Please reach out to learn more about us, our programs and how we can best support you and your child as you navigate these initial stages of recovery.
- The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Food for Thought: Substance Abuse and Eating Disorders. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) Columbia University; New York: 2003.