[Guest blog] Spotting the signs of an eating disorder – a parent’s guide

Director of External Affairs at Beat
28 February 2017

It’s not always going to be obvious if your child has an eating disorder. It’s common to believe it’s something you can ‘see’. But eating disorders are mental illnesses and can sometimes go under the radar for a long time.

A girl sat on a jetty, dangling her feet in the water

Eating disorders vary from person to person. Though there are some signs and traits associated with specific eating disorders, a person does not have to show all of them to be ill. Changes to their behaviour and mood will probably be noticeable well before changes to their appearance.

General signs of eating disorders

If your child has an eating disorder, they might show some of these general signs:

  • being preoccupied with food and/or secretive behaviour around food
  • self-consciousness when eating in front of others
  • low self-esteem
  • irritability and mood swings
  • tiredness
  • social withdrawal
  • feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety

Some eating disorders have other more specific signs.   

Possible signs of bulimia include:

  • changes in weight
  • disappearing after meals
  • a feeling of being out of control around food
  • sore skin on the backs of hands or fingers
  • bad breath or tooth decay

Possible signs of anorexia include:

  • weight loss, possibly hidden with baggy clothes
  • distorted perception of weight
  • being preoccupied with weight
  • obsessive behaviour, such as counting calories
  • difficulty focusing

Possible signs of binge eating disorder include:

  • weight gain
  • spending lots of money on food
  • feeling out of control around food
  • eating quicker than usual
  • eating when not hungry

Some eating disorders don’t fit the criteria to be diagnosed as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. Instead, it might be diagnosed as ‘other specified feeding or eating disorder’. This diagnosis isn’t any less serious. If your child has any eating disorder, it’s important to get them into treatment as quickly as possible to give them the best chance of a full and sustained recovery.

Talking to your child

It can be difficult to raise the issue – you may worry you’ll say the wrong thing, or that your child might be upset or offended if you suggest they’re ill.

Often people with eating disorders deny or don’t realise there’s a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ill. People with eating disorders thrive on secrecy, and those who are in recovery often agree that breaking the silence is the right thing to do, even if they didn’t feel that way at the time. The sooner someonecan get treatment, the better.

So how do you start a conversation and get your child the help they need?

  • Do your research and think about what it is you want to say. For information and advice, you can visit Beat’s website. Have some information with you while you talk to your child that you can refer to. You could share it with them, or leave it with them to look at by themselves.
  • Choose a place where you both feel safe and won’t be disturbed, and a time when neither of you feels angry or upset. Avoid any time just before or after meals.
  • Try not to centre the conversation around food and weight. At their roots, eating disorders are about what the person is feeling rather than how they’re treating food.
  • Try not to back them into a corner or use language that could feel like they’re being judged or accused. For example, “I wondered if you’d like to talk about how you’re feeling” is a gentler approach than, “You need to get help”.
  • Your child may be angry and defensive. Try to avoid getting angry in response, and don’t be disheartened. Reassure them that you’ll be there when they’re ready to talk, and that your concern is their wellbeing. Maybe suggest that your child could talk to someone else if they’d find that easier. For example, Beat have their own Youthline, which is open to anyone under 18.
  • If they acknowledge that they need help, encourage them to seek it as quickly as possible. Offer to go with them to see their GP if they would find that helpful.
  • If they tell you there’s nothing wrong, even if they seem convincing, keep an eye on them and bear in mind that they may be ill even if they don’t realise it. Denial is common – in the case of anorexia, it’s considered a symptom of the illness. You were worried for a reason, so trust your judgment.
  • Don’t wait too long before approaching them again. It might feel even harder than the first conversation, especially if they didn’t react well. But, if you’re still worried, keeping quiet about it won’t help. Remember, eating disorders thrive on secrecy.

Eating disorders are very complex mental illnesses. If you need some support or have unanswered questions, call the Beat helpline on 0808 801 0677, or visit our website to find out more.

The Beat logoBeat is the UK’s eating disorder charity, and is a champion, guide and friend to anyone affected by these serious mental illnesses.

The advice in this article is adapted from Beat’s booklet: ‘Eating Disorders: A Guide for Friends and Family’, produced for their annual Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which runs from 27 February – 5 March 2017.

Tom Quinn
Director of External Affairs at Beat

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