Helping Your Child Navigate Eating Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence

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Eating disorders are common among young people. They usually begin during adolescence, although they can sometimes develop in pre-teens or even earlier.

If your child has an eating disorder, it’s normal to feel worried and concerned. Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can harm a young person’s mental and physical health, relationships, and social life. But they are also treatable, and with the right support, young people can recover and reclaim a healthy life.

The most important support a parent can offer any young person with an eating problem is helping them to seek, access, and continue professional treatment. But parents’ roles don’t just stop there. There are other steps parents can take to help their children manage eating disorders as they receive treatment and continue their recovery journey.

This blog outlines some of the ways that parents can help a young person navigate an eating disorder in childhood and adolescence and provides some key facts about the conditions.

What Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders are serious and complex mental health conditions that affect the way a young person thinks, feels, and acts. 

Eating disorders are about more than just food and eating. They’re usually rooted in difficult emotions, thoughts, or memories that drive disordered eating behaviours. These underlying feelings aren’t always obvious to parents and other people close to a child or adolescent, and it may not be easy for parents to understand exactly what their child is experiencing.

Sometimes, young people might use disordered eating behaviours to:

  • numb or reduce distressing feelings
  • help them feel in control, especially when they are anxious or overwhelmed
  • make them feel like they have a way to cope with the challenges they face

Eating disorders can involve lots of different types of behaviours. These might include restricting the amount of food they eat or their energy intake. They can involve cycles of binging and purging or experiencing a loss of control when eating food. They can also involve over-exercising or only eating certain types of food.

When mental health professionals diagnose eating disorders, they use certain diagnostic manuals that specify different types of eating disorders, each with specific criteria. Some of the most common eating disorders include: 

Sometimes, young people may have an eating problem or eating disorder that doesn’t exactly match any of these disorders and they may not receive a diagnosis. However, that doesn’t mean that their eating problem isn’t serious. If a child or adolescent has an eating problem that’s affecting their everyday life, they still need professional help to recover, heal, and live a healthy and fulfilling life.

When Do Eating Disorders Usually Develop?

Eating disorders usually develop during adolescence. Research shows that the most common age of onset is between 14 and 19 years for anorexia nervosa and 16 and 20 years for bulimia nervosa.

However, many young people develop eating disorders even earlier, before they reach their teenage years. Research shows that the average age of onset for anorexia nervosa is getting earlier, with more and more children also developing the disorder.

What Are the Early Signs of Eating Disorders in Childhood and Adolescence?

The early signs of an eating disorder can look very different in one child or adolescent from another. It’s important to keep an open mind and always seek professional help if you feel like something isn’t right. It’s also good to try and have an open conversation with your child about what they are experiencing.

Some of the early signs that someone is developing an eating disorder may include:

  • changing and controlling the food they eat, avoiding certain food groups or eating less than usual
  • avoiding eating with other people and preferring to eat alone
  • focusing on their body shape and weight and/or having a different perception of their body from other people
  • exercising a lot more than they used to
  • seeming absent, ‘not here’, or preoccupied by something else
  • changes in mood, tiredness, or difficulties concentrating
  • losing or gaining weight

If you notice any of these signs or feel like something isn’t right, it’s important to get professional support. Young people can’t usually recover from eating disorders on their own and require treatment to recover and heal. Early intervention typically leads to better recovery outcomes, so parents should act quickly and avoid waiting until things get worse.

How Can Parents Help Children and Adolescents to Navigate Eating Disorders?

Helping a young person access professional support is one of the most important steps a parent can take. Alongside this, there are some other things you can do to support your child.

Have Open Conversations

Parents can offer young people emotional support by having open conversations about what they are going through. When you’re speaking to a young person about an eating problem, there are some things to have in mind. You should try to:

  • Listen to what your child has to say. Give them the space to open up about their feelings while staying open minded and non-judgemental.
  • Try not to make assumptions about what your child is feeling or why they are acting in a certain way.
  • Remember that these conversations may be difficult for a young person.
  • Help your child to understand that you’re coming from a place of love and care.
  • Use first person statements to open up the conversation, like “I’ve noticed that” or “I’m worried because..”, before asking them if they want to speak more about it.
  • Be direct and show that you would like to speak about what’s going on rather than avoiding the issue
  • Stay calm throughout the conversation
  • Empathise with your child and validate their feelings
  • Ask them how they would like you to support them

Manage Your Own Emotions

It’s not easy to see your child in distress. It’s normal to experience many emotions, including worry, frustration, or helplessness.

However, sometimes emotional reactions can make a young person feel even more anxious, especially in difficult moments like meal times. If you’re feeling stressed at these times, you could try:

  • to leave a room and come back when you feel more calm
  • suggesting other activities at meal times, like watching TV, that can make the situation feel less tense
  • do activities before and after eating that can act as distractions

Understand the Role of Social Media

Social media platforms and online forums can offer resources and support for eating disorder recovery, including stories of other young people who have recovered from eating disorders.

But social media can also push unhelpful and harmful content to young people. Despite moderation from sites, pro-eating disorder content and accounts still exist that directly encourage disordered eating behaviours.

Other social media content, such as health and fitness posts, can also encourage thinking patterns and feelings that help to maintain eating problems and disordered eating attitudes. For example, ‘fitspiration’ content often emphasises a conception of ‘health’ that’s related to body shape and weight. Studies show that these posts can lead to negative body image and weight loss among adolescents.

To help protect against harmful online content, you might want to speak with your child about the kinds of things they are viewing on social media and how it affects them. You could encourage them to join online forums of eating disorder charities and other resources that are moderated and offer a positive social media community.

See Your Child as A Whole Person

When parents are worried about and preoccupied with their child’s eating disorder, they can start to overlook other parts of their lives and their identity. They may forget to focus on other parts of daily life, like spending time together, having other talks, and supporting their other hobbies, goals, and interests.

It’s really important to remember that there is much more to a young person than their eating disorder. Keep going with other aspects of family life and daily routines as much as you can. This can help young people feel valued, cared for, and understood.

Support Your Child to Socialise

Spending time with friends and family is really important for eating disorder recovery. But sometimes, attending social events and occasions can be difficult, especially when food is involved.

It might help your child to prepare for activities like family meals or parties in advance to reduce anxiety and worry. This could involve:

  • Choosing what to eat at a restaurant before going
  • Making time to unwind between social events
  • Thinking about ways to cope if things are too hard, like going to eat in a different room
  • Focusing on enjoying other aspects of the occasion

Understand that Recovery Will Take Time

Recovery from eating disorders may not be a linear process. There may be setbacks along the way, as well as steps forward. Progress may be slow, and the first changes may feel very small, but they are something.

It’s important to praise a young person as they move forward and stay patient through challenges and setbacks. Remember that an eating disorder isn’t a choice or a young person’s fault. It’s a mental health condition that requires care and support.

Look After Yourself

Supporting a child with an eating disorder can be incredibly difficult. Stress and worry about a young person’s mental and physical health can be exhausting and begin to affect parents’ mental health, too.

It’s important for parents to look after themselves so that they can continue to care for a young person. It may help to:

  • Accept support from others, like close friends and family members
  • Take time for yourself to recharge
  • Speak with other parents who have similar experiences
  • Speak with your child’s treatment provider and share your feelings and concerns
  • Reach out for professional support for your own mental health

The Wave Clinic: Building Life Advantage for Young People

The Wave Clinic is a residential treatment space that specialises in eating disorders. Our programs are dedicated to young people’s futures, supporting them to overcome mental health challenges and build life advantages.

Our whole-person approach combines specialist clinical care with academic education, vocational learning opportunities, volunteering, inspiring experiences, and community building. We work with young people to explore different life paths and find their place in the world. 

At The Wave, we’re experts in the treatment of eating disorders. Our team includes specialists in child and adolescent eating disorder treatment from all over the world. We offer several levels of care, from intensive care beds with 24-hour medical support to collective living in our main house.

If you’d like to find out more about our programs, contact us today. Let’s build futures together.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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