Noticing Changes: Signs Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

Mar 15, 2024

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You might have noticed changes in your child’s behavior around food, food preferences, intake, physical activity, mood, or even their body. Maybe your child used to eat whatever you put in front of them, but all of a sudden, they’ve become very picky and will only eat a handful of foods.

It can be scary when your child’s eating habits begin to shift. But how do you know when you should be concerned? What if your child just had a change in their favorite food, and you fear you’re overreacting? Could these changes really be signs your child has an eating disorder?

It’s important to take seriously any changes in your child’s eating habits, activity level, and growth. While not every change means that your child has an eating disorder, being knowledgeable of those eating disorder behaviors can help you know when you need to seek expert help.

Identifying the Problem

It’s totally normal for bodies — and food preferences — to change over time.

Even as adults, our body shapes and sizes can fluctuate. From time to time, we may prefer different foods over others. Our eating habits may look different in various seasons. We may also take an interest in different movement activities over time.

However, when those behaviors begin to impact your child’s day-to-day activities, emotions, and overall well-being, that can be cause for concern. Understanding the warning signs and symptoms of an eating disorder can help you know when you need to take actions to help your child heal.

Here’s what you need to know about potential signs of an eating disorder in a child.

Signs Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

While some of our preferences for foods and various activities may fluctuate over time, any sudden or significant shifts in your child’s behavior could be a sign of something more serious.

It’s important to be on the lookout for early signs of an eating disorder in your child. Experts emphasize that early intervention has a profound, positive impact on recovery.¹

Some symptoms of an eating disorder in your child to be on the lookout for include:²

A Shift in Eating Habits

While your child not being as interested in a single or few specific foods is not generally a sign for concern, it would be a red flag if they start eliminating whole food groups, eating a very limited amount of food, hiding it, pushing it around their plate, or developing other unusual or ritualistic behaviors.

Increased Interest or Hyperfixation with Food, Movement, or Body Image

If your child suddenly starts taking a strong interest in specifics surrounding food — like calorie counts, specific ingredients, etc. — this could be cause for concern.

Additionally, if your child suddenly develops an increased focus on movement — for example, if they do it with a focus on “burning calories,” in regard to changing their appearance, or in a way that inhibits other normal daily activities — this could indicate a disordered behavior.

Your child talking or expressing concern for their body image or weight is also not something to take lightly.

Weight Changes or Stagnation

Any drop or stagnation in your child’s weight or growth is cause for concern. While weight loss is one sign to be on the lookout for, not continuing to gain weight or gaining less weight than what has been consistent for them over time (if they drop in percentile for their age) should be taken seriously.

Loss of a menstrual period or failure to get a period during puberty for those that are biologically female is also cause for concern.

Health Concerns

Other health problems that can result from eating disorders include low pulse and blood pressure, slowed digestion, constipation, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, dry skin, brittle hair, and more.³

Other Abnormal Behaviors

There are many other abnormal behaviors that may indicate an eating disorder.

For example, taking a strong interest in cooking shows, preparing meals for others but not eating them, taking diuretics and/or laxatives, doing “cleanses,” and immediately going to the bathroom after eating (which may indicate purging behaviors) can also signify a problem.

When To Be Concerned

While not every change in your child’s eating habits, weight, or movement activities is cause for concern, when it affects your child’s daily habits and overwhelms other areas of their life, you should definitely take it seriously.

Some parents may worry they’re overreacting. However, it’s never an overreaction if it means caring about your child’s health and well-being. Eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors should always be taken seriously.

Changes in Behavior, Health, or Mood

In addition to the behaviors mentioned, if your child becomes restless or anxious in situations surrounding food or movement, this should not be ignored. Food should be a standard, stress-free part of a child’s life. You want them to enjoy a variety of foods for nourishment. When that changes, it’s never “normal.”

“Normal” eating habits — especially for children — include eating intuitively, in line with hunger and fullness cues. Kids naturally want to eat what sounds good to them. Taking an interest in foods’ calorie or other nutritional counts, restricting, and engaging in other behaviors is always abnormal.

It’s also crucial to notice if their eating or movement behaviors begin to affect their health — whether that’s their weight, their growth, or another aspect of their physical well-being. You also want to note if those behaviors or preoccupations affect your child’s mental health. Children should not be worried about movement outside of their interest in activities and how it brings them joy.

While one or two isolated behaviors may also not be enough to indicate a full-blown eating disorder, it can still be a disordered habit. This should also be addressed. Remember: Early intervention is key. You want to help your child as soon as you notice something is up.

Noticing Signs Is The Key To Care

Noticing signs that your child has an eating disorder can be frightening. However, the fact that you notice these changes in your child’s behavior also shows you are a loving and attentive parent.

Once you see these changes, you can take steps to get your child the help they need to get back to their carefree, playful selves. It may feel like a daunting journey, but having you as a parent to guide them is key to recovery and restored food freedom.

Citations

  1. Koreshe, E., Paxton, S., Miskovic-Wheatley, J. et al. 2023. Prevention and early intervention in eating disorders: findings from a rapid review. Journal of Eating Disorders 11, 38. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-023-00758-3
  2. Muhlheim, Lauren. 2018. In When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating, 15-20. Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications.
  3. National Eating Disorders Association. 2022. “Health Consequences.” NEDA. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences.

 

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