As a parent, it can be very scary to notice signs of an eating disorder in your child. It can also be scary to realize that many signs are easy to miss. But learning about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children will help you better understand whether or not you should be worried, and what you can do to help.
Eating disorders are the second deadliest mental illness; they have far-ranging consequences for mental and physical health; and early intervention makes a big difference in how long it takes a person to recover. Because of all this, it's important for parents and caregivers to recognize potential signs of an eating disorder in a child, adolescent, or teen—even if their loved one doesn't fit the stereotypical mold of someone who gets an eating disorder. You can't tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them, and they affect people across gender, race, ethnicity, and body size. Knowing what to look out for can at the very least help educate you about this important issue (which undoubtedly affects someone you know), and at best save the life of your loved one.
Signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children
There are several different eating disorder diagnoses, and the same type of eating disorder will look different in different people. Given that, there's no exact symptom profile you can use to determine if your loved one is struggling. Still, there are a number of common behavioral, physical, and emotional signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children that tend to show up.
Here are some potential signs your child has an eating disorder:
- Placing a high value on weight, weight loss, and body size or shape
- Preoccupation with food and its nutritional content (calories, carbs, fat, etc)
- Avoidance of meals or snacks with other people
- New eating behaviors, such as a new diet, significantly different portion sizes, eating much more slowly, or cutting food up into small pieces
- Mood changes, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, or euphoria
- Weight fluctuations, or failure to meet expected height or weight gains in growing children
- Digestive issues
- Feeling cold all the time
- Poor immune function (getting colds frequently)
- Social withdrawal
- Exercising obsessively
If you’re concerned about your child, it's important to look at the big picture—not just their eating—to be able to accurately identify potential signs of an eating disorder. You can use this screener to help you consider various areas of your child’s life that may be affected by disordered eating or an eating disorder and determine whether to see a health professional.
Why signs of eating disorders are so tricky to spot
Despite the fact that eating disorders are on the rise, many of them continue to go undetected. This is in part due to the self-obscuring nature of these diseases themselves, and partly due to a larger societal misunderstanding about what eating disorders are and what they look like.
First, let's talk about the self-obscuring part. This basically means that someone with an eating disorder will try to hide it, making the typical signs of an eating disorder tough to spot. Here's how that might show up:
- Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and many of the concerning symptoms—restricting, bingeing, vomiting, and overexercising—may happen privately without anyone noticing at first.
- Parents who pick up on troubling cues may not get an honest answer if they ask their child a direct question about food. This has nothing to do with how trustworthy a child is, but is a result of their eating disorder compelling them to deceive.
- A teen or tween who might normally share worries with their parents is unlikely to ask for help for an eating disorder. This could happen for a number of reasons, including shame, denial about the problem, or a belief that their eating disorder is a good thing.
This last part—the idea that an eating disorder could be a good thing—emerges out of the confusing fact that our culture praises many of the behaviors common to eating disorders. All around us, society encourages people to limit portion sizes, choose lower-calorie options, avoid caloric drinks, cut out certain food groups, and exercise as much as possible. Because of this, the early signs of an eating disorder could at first seem like a “healthy” behavior.
Now, let's talk about the ways in which unconscious misconceptions about eating disorders can make people blind to the signs of an eating disorder even if it's right in front of them. Some common myths around eating disorders include:
- Myth 1: Only thin people can have eating disorders. Despite what the media tends to portray, eating disorders don’t have a “look.” Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of gender, race, body size, age, or socioeconomic status.
- Myth 2: Everyone with an eating disorder wants to be smaller. While many people with eating disorders are concerned about their weight or body size, not everyone with an eating disorder has body image concerns (for instance, those with ARFID rarely have any body image distress).
- Myth 3: Eating disorders are a choice. Eating disorders are not phases, choices, or lifestyles. They are complex illnesses rooted in biological, psychological, and social risk factors. As we believe strongly at Equip, eating disorders are not vanity issues, they are brain disorders.
- Myth 4: Eating disorders are always tied to other mental health struggles. People can develop eating disorders without any history of mental illness, abuse, or other trauma.
If you think you're noticing signs your child has an eating disorder, it can be a frightening thing to acknowledge. Parents are often wary of making things worse by drawing attention to their child’s eating, changes in their body, or other warning signs. It makes sense to feel anxious about these topics, but the truth is that you can’t make an eating disorder worse by talking about it. In fact, ignoring it just gives the eating disorder time to strengthen its grip.
If you've noticed any of these signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children, it's important to get a professional evaluation. Doing so will either ease your mind that everything is okay, or get your family the support you need to move toward recovery. If your child does have an eating disorder, accessing treatment as soon as possible will help give them the best chance of a swift and robust recovery—and being aware of warning signs is the first step on the path toward healing.
- Treasure, Janet, and Gerald Russell. “The Case for Early Intervention in Anorexia Nervosa: Theoretical Exploration of Maintaining Factors.” The British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 199, no. 1, 2011, pp. 5–7., doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.087585.
- Pomeroy, C., Mitchell, J.E. and Eckert, E.D. (1992), Risk of infection and immune function in anorexia nervosa. Int. J. Eat. Disord., 12: 47-55. https://doi.org/10.1002/1098-108X(199207)12:1<47::AID-EAT2260120107>3.0.CO;2-D
- Barney, A., Bruett, L.D., Forsberg, S. et al. Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and Body Image: a case report. J Eat Disord10, 61 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-022-00583-0