How to Help a Child with an Eating Disorder

Many people associate eating disorders with teenagers and young adults, but eating disorders affect all ages—including children.and kids. According to one study, as many as one in five children may have disordered eating habits. As a parent, it’s important to know the signs of an eating disorder and take steps right away if you notice any in your child. Early intervention is important: it makes recovery easier and leads to better outcomes. Read on to learn the warning signs and how to help your child if you think they may be struggling with an eating disorder.

Signs your child may be struggling with an eating disorder

Eating disorders can sneak into a child’s life early—though they are more common in adolescents and teens, kids as young as six can be affected by eating disorders like anorexia, ARFID, and others.

There are several warning signs that could indicate your child may be developing an eating disorder. Keeping an eye out for these red flags can help you get your child the support they need as soon as they need it:

  • Changing eating habits. Kids can go through eating cycles as they grow. They may eat more before they have a growth spurt or slow down when their spurt is done, and their food preferences may change. That’s all normal. However, major and sudden changes are what you want to be mindful of: dieting, cutting out entire food groups, skipping meals, binge eating, eating rituals or routines.
  • Picky eating that worsens over time. Lots of kids can be picky about what they eat or go through phases of pickiness. But if your child’s pickiness is extreme, and the list of foods they are willing to eat grows shorter over time, it could be the sign of an eating disorder.
  • Lack of appetite. If you have to fight your child to get them to eat because they’re not hungry or simply uninterested in food, it could be the sign of an eating disorder. This is particularly true if their lack of appetite occurs alongside lack of growth or weight loss.
  • Physical signs. Eating disorders affect the body in different ways. You’ll want to keep a watchful eye for things like rapid weight changes (or failing to meet expected weight or height gains on the growth chart), low energy, and changes in their hair, skin, or nails. These can all be indicators of changes in nutrition.
  • Mood swings or behavioral shifts. Malnutrition and the stress and anxiety of an eating disorder can both lead to changes in emotional and mental state. You might notice mood swings, your normally chipper child might become grumpy or sullen, or your social child might become uninterested in spending time with friends. Any of these changes in mood and disposition, alongside other eating disorder signs, could be a red flag.
  • Obsessing over food or exercise. If your child appears preoccupied with thoughts about food, exercise, or their body, it’s a sign that they’re struggling. Notice how much time they spend looking at nutrition labels, planning meals, prioritizing exercise, looking in the mirror, or scrutinizing their body. If things like this take up a significant amount of time, it’s a cause for concern.

Talking to your child about eating disorder concerns

If you’ve determined that your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, what next? Most parents don’t know how to help a child with an eating disorder, but thankfully, the roadmap is clear.

The first step is to have a conversation. Remember that your child may not recognize that there is anything wrong with the way they’re eating: it makes sense to them, and may be helping them deal with distressing physical or psychological feelings (stomach pain, disgust, anxiety). Initiate the conversation from a place of curiosity, and don’t be surprised if they don’t agree with you that there is, indeed, a problem. Listen to them—but if you’re concerned, trust your gut.

Here are some other tips for having these conversations:

  • Make sure the setting is right. Find a safe and calm time to have your talk. Don’t try to have this conversation at or near a mealtime. Let them know ahead of time that you’d like to have a meaningful chat, and set up a time to talk in an environment where they feel comfortable.
  • Express your concerns without judgment. Be honest and share how you feel by using “I” statements. Don’t be accusatory or make assumptions.
  • Listen. Be there to listen and let your child share without interrupting them.
  • Become an expert. Learn everything you can about eating disorders in children. The more you know, the more you can help provide accurate information to your child. Our Eating Disorders 101 page is a good place to start.

Finding the right eating disorder treatment for your child

Only you can have the tough conversation with your child. But treatment is a team effort that requires professional support. If your child is dealing with an eating disorder, it’s vital to seek a team of specialists as soon as you can, since early intervention is associated with better outcomes and makes the recovery journey easier.

Here are some tips for helping a child with an eating disorder find the right treatment:

  • Contact a professional. Start with your pediatrician or a mental health professional who has experience with eating disorders in children. They can help provide an eating disorder diagnosis and assess next steps. You can also schedule a free consultation with our team.
  • Look into therapy. Explore your options in therapy: individual, family, or even group therapy. Cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavioral therapies are evidence-based modalities to look into, while family-based treatment (FBT) is the gold standard treatment approach for eating disorders in young people. At Equip, we pull from a variety of the leading evidence-based treatment modalities to individualize care to each patient.
  • Take a multidisciplinary approach. Eating disorders are best treated by a team of providers who can tackle different aspects of the disorder. This team can include mental health providers, therapists, dietitians, and even peers who have walked the recovery road. At Equip, all patients and their families are matched with a dedicated five-person care team who work together to guide your family to recovery.
  • Keep up hope. The recovery journey can be very challenging for your child and your family, but recovery is possible—and worth it—for every single person with an eating disorder. Staying engaged with your own support network and keeping a positive mindset can go a long way. Celebrate the victories, big and small.
  • Promote healthy eating habits. Lead by example by eating regular, balanced meals and focus on helping your child do the same. Working with a dietitian can be tremendously helpful in creating meal plans that meet your child’s specific nutritional needs, as well as teaching you how best to provide supervision and support during meals and snacks.
  • Be body positive. While not all eating disorders in children involve body image concerns, some do. Help your child develop a healthy body image by focusing on their strengths, talents, and achievements rather than their appearance. Also, take care not to make negative comments about weight or body shape—your own or others—in their presence.
  • Address underlying issues. Eating disorders can be triggered by things like stress, low self-esteem, and anxiety. Encourage your child to express how they’re feeling and what they’re dealing with. Help and encourage them to seek support.

Helping your child with an eating disorder takes a team effort. With the right support and love, your kid can conquer their mental health condition and come out stronger on the other side.

At Equip, we understand how difficult it is to see your child struggle with an eating disorder. We provide fully virtual, evidence-based eating disorder treatment that helps families get the support they need without having to uproot their lives. Families receive their own support through family mentors, people with lived experience supporting a loved one, and support groups with others going through similar experiences.

Get in touch with our team today for more information or to schedule a consultation.

  1. López-Gil, José Francisco et al. “Global Proportion of Disordered Eating in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” JAMA pediatrics vol. 177,4 (2023): 363-372. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5848
  2. “Eating Disorders: About More Than Food.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,,all%20over%20the%20body%20(lanugo). Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.
Randy Smith
Content Writer
Clinically reviewed by:
Jessie Menzel, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Vice President, Program Development
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