Kids and Eating Disorders: Common Signs and When to Seek Help

Navigating the challenges of childhood can be complex, for both kids and their parents. Sometimes, those challenges are a normal part of growing up and you just need to ride the wave. But sometimes, like if your child is struggling with a mental illness like an eating disorder, it's crucial to get professional help.

So how can you know when it’s time to seek out a specialist? Here’s where knowing the signs of eating disorders in kids can make a big difference. While eating disorders look different from person to person, and different diagnoses can manifest in different ways (for instance, anorexia won’t look the same as ARFID), there are some general symptoms that are common to most eating disorders. By looking out for these signs, you can get your child the support they need as soon as they need it.

Common eating disorder signs in kids

1. Rigidity around eating and meals

It’s normal for kids to go through different phases in their eating habits: they may be more or less hungry, more or less picky, and their preferences will change. However, if your child’s pickiness has become extreme, they are severely restricting their diet, or they’ve become very rigid about food (including what, where, and how they eat) it could be the sign of an eating disorder.

Try to pay attention to how much your child focuses on their diet. Kids with eating disorders tend to think and talk a lot about food and their diet. They may start stressing over calorie counts and how food is affecting the way they look. If your child has an intense preoccupation with their diet and body image, it’s important to seek help.

2. Major eating pattern changes

In addition to how much they think and talk about food, notice their actual eating habits: have they changed? Changes might include refusals of certain food groups, cutting up food in a certain way, or binge eating.

Changes in eating patterns are not always associated with quantity. Instead of simply eating more or less, your child might start to eat at odd times instead of at regular meals. Being aware of these pattern changes can help you get the right treatment for your child. Early intervention can be essential for preventing health issues caused by nutritional imbalances.

3. Weight loss or lack of growth

Unexplained weight changes are a common indicator of eating disorders in kids. These weight changes are typically caused by drastic changes in the child’s diet and eating behaviors. For growing children, this could also mean falling off the growth curve even without weight loss (in this case, not meeting expected weight gain benchmarks is the equivalent to losing weight).

If your child is malnourished due to their eating disorder, immediate treatment is necessary. Malnutrition can be particularly harmful in growing young people, who need those calories and nutrients for their brains and bodies to properly develop. With weight restoration-focused treatment, your family’s provider team can help your child return to a healthy weight.

4. Changes in clothing

Has your child suddenly started dressing differently? Sudden changes in clothing style can be totally normal in young people, but it could also be a sign of an eating disorder.

People with eating disorders often choose to wear layered or loose, oversized clothing to hide their body shape or conceal weight changes. And while many of us associate body image distress with teenagers and adults, research shows that these issues can emerge as early as age six.

5. GI or stomach troubles

Disordered eating habits can have a serious impact on digestion, leading to issues like constipation, diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, and others. If your child frequently complains of stomach aches or pain and there’s not another identifiable cause, it could be an eating disorder.

6. Lack of appetite 

Often, a lack of appetite or interest in food can be an indication of an eating disorder in young children. If your child is rarely hungry or gets full too quickly and you have to push or force them to eat, an eating disorder could be the root cause. If your child never gets their appetite back after an illness, especially a stomach flu, it could also be a red flag.

7. Excessive exercise

In addition to changing their diet, if your child has an eating disorder they may also have adopted disordered exercise habits. Rather than working out to feel good or for sports they enjoy, your child may be hyper-fixated on burning calories or obtaining a certain image through extreme exercises. If your child is exercising through pain, sickness, or poor weather; exercising in secret; or choosing exercise over other activities, like spending time with family and friends, it’s a sign that they may be struggling with an eating disorder.

It’s also important to note that exercise in kids usually looks different than it does in adults. They may not hit the gym or go on long runs, but rather engage in compulsive movement around the house (constant standing, workout out in their room, doing exercises while watching TV), develop a new interest in exercise videos, or ask to tag along with parents when they work out.

8. Concentration issues

An eating disorder can make it hard to concentrate and stay focused, not only because malnutrition impairs brain function and causes fatigue, but also because eating disorders clutter the brain with food- and body-related thoughts, leaving little room for anything else. Eating disorders also tend to worsen or bring on anxiety or depression, which can make it even harder to focus on things like homework and lectures at school.

These difficulties can lead to poor school performance, even for kids who usually do well in class.

Treating kids with eating disorders at Equip

The unfortunate reality is that kids get eating disorders. If you’ve noticed some of the above eating disorder signs in your child, it’s important to talk to your pediatrician. Early intervention is associated with better outcomes and makes recovery easier.

At Equip, we use a variety of proven, evidence-based interventions to treat eating disorders in young people. Each family is matched with a dedicated five-person provider team who work with you to create a personalized treatment plan that you can follow at home. With wraparound support and individualized care, your child can recover at home, alongside your family, which makes recovery more sustainable and protects against relapse. It also means you don’t need to press pause on life so that they can get better.

Reach out to our team today to learn more about eating disorder treatment for kids at Equip or to schedule a consultation.

Kate Willsky
Senior Manager, Content
Clinically reviewed by:
Jessie Menzel, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Vice President, Program Development
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