Recently, after I spoke at a school, a mum came up to me with tears in her eyes and said: “Thank you so much. You’ve got no idea how important this talk is. My daughter is dying of anorexia and has been for months and this is the first time I’ve ever heard eating disorder prevention addressed. If you can help just one family avoid the heartbreak and relentless fear we’re facing right now, you have done an amazing thing – people don’t get how easily these conditions are triggered, and how hard they are to overcome.”
I don’t want you or anyone to be in her shoes. So below are eight signs to look for. Some might surprise you.
As you read the signs, it pays to remember that eating disorders don’t have a ‘look’ (people of all shapes and sizes can have an eating disorder) and don’t discriminate between genders, ages, ethnicities or income levels.
Anyone who is showing the below signs may be engaging in disordered eating behavior and be at risk for an eating disorder.
8 signs your child might have an eating disorder
One: Abnormal weight changes
Children typically grow on a predicable scale. If they are in the 90th percentile for weight, for example, they are predicted to stay at that place as they grow. If your child deviates from that grow curve either up or down, that is cause for concern. If your child is at the outer reaches of the size bell curve and basically stays there, that is considered typical.
Teens that fall off the grow curve through exercise or dieting is a cause for concern, even if their weight was high to start with.
It’s possible for a child to fall off the growth curve unintentionally, as well as intentionally. They may have a lot of stress and be training hard for a sports team and forget to eat. This drop off the growth curve can trigger an eating disorder for a number of reasons (they love the sense of control, they suddenly get a lot of attention, they have an eating disorder gene that gets activated).
Two: Avoidance of family meals
Suddenly your child doesn’t want to attend family meals. They come up with all sorts of excuses. Every so often this isn’t a problem, however, if you notice this happening regularly, it could be a red flag.
Three: Your child goes on a diet or healthy eating plan (with the intention of weight loss)
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that children restricting calories (even if it’s in the name of ‘healthy eating’) are at risk of developing an eating disorder (they also warn that children are likely to be at a higher weight in later life than they would be if they never restricted their calories intake in the first place).
Four: Food goes missing in the house and your child denies eating it
Binge eating disorders including bulimia nervosa go hand in hand with eating large amounts of food. Your child denying that they’ve eaten the food is a signal that your child feels ashamed and guilty – both signs of disordered eating.
Five: A marked and sudden increase in physical activity
If your child becomes obsessed with ‘having to’ do their exercise, or with their Fitbit, or with external results (size, measurements, etc) of their exercise, this could be a red-flag.
Six: Their appearance is stopping them from socializing
It’s normal for teens, in particular, to care a lot about ‘looking good’. When this starts to impact their engagement in social activities this could signal a deeper problem.
Seven: a change in school activity
If a child who has always done well in school and enjoyed it, suddenly isn’t, this could be a warning sign.
Eight: Increased focus on helping to prepare and cook food
This could be a red-flag if their focus is on ‘healthy food’ and goes along with a new ‘pickiness’ about what they will and won’t eat. It may include cutting out whole food groups.
What to do if you suspect an eating disorder (or want to prevent one)
If you’ve noticed one or many of the above in your child, I recommend getting your child assessed by an eating disorder therapist/psychologist/dietitian. Your child will most likely feel shame and not want to be assessed. It’s important to tell them the assessment is for you, not them. It’s to alleviate your fears and rule out that a serious problem.
It’s important to remember, that having your child assessed for an eating disorder cannot ‘make things worse’ or ‘bring an eating disorder on’. But it may save their life.
If you would like to go forward with calm and confidence, you need a plan.
The first thing to do is find a therapist who is preferably trained in Health at Every Size, Intuitive Eating and practices from a weight-neutral perspective. Email me here if you’d like a list of professionals to contact near you.
In order to get the very best outcomes for your child (know what questions to ask, understand the different approaches, be confident in your support) here’s what I suggest:
- Watch this free Raising Body Confident Kids mini series.
- Read Intuitive Eating, & Body Respect
- Research National Eating Disorder websites: EDANZ and NEDA
- Research the latest info on Eating Disorder recovery*.
- Engage professionals who can help your child (and you to support them) The Recovered Living Website is a great source of information.
- Consider enrolling in the Raising Body Confident Kids online course.
- Seek the support of other parents going through the same thing.
Like what you’ve just read? Get the free Raising Body Confident Kids 3 part audio training (5 mins each), plus weekly-ish coaching emails.