How can I tell if my child has an eating difficulty?

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa
23 April 2024
Next review due April 2027

Most children have likes and dislikes when it comes to food. But when does picky eating become something more? Here, we’ll tell you what you need to know about eating difficulties and eating disorders in children. We’ll also outline the signs that your child might have an eating difficulty.

family eating dinner together

What’s an eating difficulty?

An eating difficulty is when someone has a difficult relationship with food. For example, your child may not like certain foods or have unusual eating patterns. Not all eating difficulties are diagnosed as disorders.

Eating difficulties, whether diagnosed or not, may affect a child’s mental and physical wellbeing.

What’s an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are eating difficulties that have been formally diagnosed. They’re mental health conditions related to unhealthy thoughts and behaviours around food and eating.

Someone with an eating disorder may use food to feel more in control or cope with feelings. Some may also have unhealthy obsessions with weight, body image, and exercise.

There isn’t one single reason your child might develop an eating disorder. The reasons are complex and unique to each child.

What are the signs of an eating difficulty?

Some possible signs of an eating difficulty include:

  • not having much of an appetite
  • exercising more than usual
  • a significant change in weight
  • leaving the dinner table quickly
  • avoiding eating in front of others
  • constantly thinking about food, weight, or body shape
  • only eating certain foods
  • not feeling able to eat even though you want to
  • limiting how much you eat
  • becoming distressed at mealtimes
  • drinking excessive amounts of fluids
  • using the bathroom directly after meals

The signs of an eating difficulty may not always be obvious. And there may also be other signs not included in this list.

It’s best to seek help if you notice anything worrying about your child. A medical professional will be able to give your child any support they need.

What are the types of eating disorder?

There are several different types of eating disorder, which we describe below.

Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)

People with ARFID restrict how much food they eat or avoid certain types of food. This might be due to smell, texture or taste, or past negative experiences around food, such as choking or vomiting. ARFID isn’t usually linked to worries about weight and body image.

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and intellectual disabilities are more likely to develop ARFID.

Bulimia (also known as bulimia nervosa)

People with bulimia will eat lots at once (binge-eat) and then get rid of the food from their body (purge). They may purge by vomiting or laxative use, for example. Bulimia is linked to worries about weight and body image.

Anorexia (also known as anorexia nervosa)

Anorexia is when someone restricts the amount they eat or drink for fear of gaining weight. They may create rules around food, such as what, where, or when they can eat. People with anorexia may have a low body weight.

Binge eating disorder

People with binge eating disorder will eat lots at once (binge-eat). They may feel unable to stop themselves from eating.

As well as becoming uncomfortably full, they may experience feelings such as guilt and disgust. They may also have rules around food and restrict what they eat, which can lead to more binging.

Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)

If your child’s symptoms don’t match a specific disorder, they may be diagnosed with other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). For example, they may have anorexia but remain at a healthy weight. This is called atypical anorexia. Or they may eat lots of food at night or after dinner if they have night eating syndrome.

Like all other eating disorders, these behaviours might result from a child wanting to feel more in control, or to cope with difficult thoughts and feelings.

How are eating disorders treated?

The first step towards treatment is talking to a GP. Your child’s physical health will be monitored, and the GP may refer them to a specialist for further assessment and treatment. Your child may be offered specialist services such as:

You could also try finding a private therapist through the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Or use free services from charities such as Beat.

If your child is very unwell, they might need to be monitored in a hospital, as an outpatient or inpatient. The treatment could include:

  • talking therapies
  • medication
  • refeeding (gradually reintroducing food)
  • group work
  • managing physical health

Where can I get support?

There are lots of helpful organisations that provide support for children and young people with eating difficulties. For example, Beat, stem4, Young Minds, and Mind. Beat has an online Helpfinder where you can find support services near you. They also run a helpline and offer online support groups.

You can also contact your child’s school to see if they can get help from the school nurse or counsellor. They may be able to put adjustments in place at school to make your child more comfortable.

So, if you think your child may have an eating difficulty, don’t be afraid to ask for support. It’s available if you need it.

Looking for more support? Our Family Mental HealthLine connects you with mental health nurses for advice and guidance about your child's mental wellbeing.

An image of Harriet and Danielle
Harriet Finlayson and Danielle Panton
Specialist Nurse Advisers – Mental Health, Bupa



Atiya Henry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

    • What is an eating problem? Mind., published January 2021
    • Types of eating disorders. Mind., published January 2021
    • Types of eating disorder. Beat., accessed April 2024
    • A guide for young people – eating problems. Signs and symptoms of eating problems. Young Minds., accessed April 2024
    • Parent Toolkit. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)., accessed April 2024
    • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Royal College of Psychiatrists., published December 2022
    • What is ARFID? ARFID Awareness UK., accessed April 2024
    • Bulimia nervosa. Summary. BMJ best practice., last reviewed March 2024
    • Anorexia nervosa. Summary. BMJ best practice., last reviewed March 2024
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    • Binge eating disorder. Beat., accessed April 2024
    • OSFED. Beat., accessed April 2024
    • Eating disorders: recognition and treatment. NICE guideline [NG69]., last updated December 2020
    • Treatment and support for eating disorders. Mind., published January 2021

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