Eating Disorders - Concerns About Your Young Person’s Eating
Eating Disorders - Concerns About Your Young Person’s Eating
Eating disorders are uncommon but serious mental health conditions that also affect physical health. Eating disorders can happen to anybody - regardless of their age, sex or size. Check out the signs and symptoms if you're concerned your child or young person may have an eating disorder. Learn how to get them the help they need.
Key points about eating disorders
- eating disorders are an uncommon but very serious mental health condition that also affects physical health
- young people with eating disorders are overly concerned with their eating, exercise, body weight or shape
- if left untreated, eating disorders can become very dangerous and life-threatening
- anyone can have an eating disorder - a young person does not need to be thin to have an eating disorder
- even if your young person is not underweight - the amount, speed and duration of their weight loss can be a concern
- it's important to recognise eating disorders as early as possible and get help for your young person straight away
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders are uncommon but very serious mental health conditions that also affect physical health.
Many young people worry about what they look like, and might try dieting or exercising to lose weight. But, these behaviours are different to those of young people with an eating disorder.
Young people with an eating disorder are overly concerned with eating, exercise, body weight or shape.
A young person does not need to be thin to have an eating disorder. Even if your child is not underweight, be alert to the amount, speed and duration of their weight loss. These factors can be of concern.
What are the different types of eating disorders?
These are the most common eating disorders:
Anorexia nervosa is when a young person has a fear of gaining weight, restricts the amount of food they eat, and has a distorted body image.
Bulimia nervosa is when a young person eats very large amounts of food and then gets rid of it. This could be through vomiting or using laxatives, diuretics or enemas.
Binge eating disorder
Binge eating disorder is when a young person eats very large amounts of food and feels distressed about their eating, but doesn’t try to get rid of the food.
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
ARFID is when a child or young person eats only a small range or amount of food and doesn't get all the nutrients they need.
What are the signs and symptoms of eating disorders?
It is important to watch for certain signs. Parents may notice if their young person is not eating the same way as the rest of the family and whānau. Young people with eating disorders often think they are OK. They often believe they do not have a problem with their eating. This is not a reason to delay or prevent getting them help. The earlier they get help, the more likely they are to get better.
Your young person may have an eating disorder if they show any of the following signs or symptoms:
Food and eating habits
- prepares food for others but doesn't eat it
- cuts down on portion sizes or shows other signs of highly limited eating and dieting
- cuts out 'junk food' or major food groups like meat or dairy
- eats large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time
- complains about the colour, smell, texture or taste of food
- seems anxious, angry or irritable, particularly around mealtimes
- feels 'out of control' around food
- experiences shame, guilt and disgust in relation to food
- avoids social activities, particularly ones that involve food
- talks a lot about food but doesn’t seem interested in eating
- has rituals for preparing and eating food
- goes to the bathroom or toilet straight after meals
- wants to try different diets
- vomits or uses laxatives or diuretics
- exercises too much, goes for long walks or runs, or exercises alone in their bedroom
- wants to build muscles
Friends, teachers or coaches might notice if your young person is showing some of these signs.
Physical health and appearance
- change in periods or loss of periods
- constant tiredness or lack of energy
- rapid weight loss or gain
- complains of being cold all the time, even in warm weather
- faintness or dizziness
- a slow heart rate
- dry skin
- soft downy hair growing on their face, arms or torso
- hot flushes or sweating episodes
- reflux, bloating, nausea or feelings of fullness
- hair loss from their head
Swollen or puffy cheeks, damaged teeth or gums, and sores on the knuckles or hands might be signs that your child is making themselves vomit.
- unhappy with how a particular body part looks
- thinking they are larger than they are
- they may make frequent comments about their size
- often asking for reassurance about how they look
- does not understand they may be ill
How do I know if my young person has an eating disorder?
Parents play an important role in identifying if their young person has an eating disorder and getting help for them.
If you notice any of the signs above, talk with your child and family doctor as soon as you can. If you think that something isn't right about the way your child is eating or behaving around food, trust yourself and seek help.
Talking with your child about your concerns
It's important to be sensitive, caring and non-judgmental when you talk with your child about food, weight and body image. It will be a difficult conversation.
You might feel worried, and your child might get angry and say there isn't a problem. Even if this happens, try to stay calm and send the message that you're concerned about your child's health and wellbeing, not your child's weight or how they look. You might need to say that your young person needs to see a health professional.
Reach out for support
If you're not sure how to talk with your child about these issues, you could ask your family doctor or a mental health professional for help. Contacting a support organisation for eating disorders is another option.
Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand (EDANZ) offers a support service for carers. Contact EDANZ on 0800 2 EDANZ / 0800 2 33269 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting help for eating disorders
If you think your child or young person has an eating disorder, visit your family doctor straightaway and ask for a referral to an eating disorder specialist service.
Getting help early is the best way to get your young person better more quickly. It is never too early to be concerned.
See more KidsHealth content on emotional and mental wellbeing
This page last reviewed 19 May 2023.
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