Eating Disorder Awareness Week: 3 Secret Signs Your Child is Struggling

By Dr Robin Clark, Medical Director at Bupa UK Insurance

UK Google search data shows a growing number of parents looking for ways to help their child overcome eating issues:

  • Anorexia in teens searches are up 80% compared to last year
  • Teens and eating disorders searches are up 50% compared to last year

Dr Robin Clark, Medical Director at Bupa UK, shares three signs that your child’s eating habits may be more than a phase. 

3 types of warning signs that your child may have an eating disorder

  1. Behavioural 

One of the first warning signs that your child is struggling may be changes in their attitude toward food. Keep an eye out for the following signs:

  • Eating more than usual, but seeing no change in their weight
  • Visiting the bathroom after eating
  • Only using specific cutlery to eat with 
  • Cutting up food into very small pieces 
  • Suddenly having interest in preparing and cooking food, without any interest in eating it
  • Eating on their own, or secretly 
  • Frequently weighing themselves 
  • Wearing baggier clothes than usual
  • Social withdrawal 
  • Physical 

If your child changes their eating habits, their appearance may change, too. Noticing a change to their appearance in isolation may not be anything to worry about, but if you notice a combination of any of the below, it could signal something worrying. 

  • Exhaustion
  • Changes to their weight – either becoming overweight or underweight
  • Not gaining weight gradually, as expected during usual adolescence 
  • Dizzy spells, feeling faint or fainting 
  • Complaining of stomach pains
  • Always feeling cold
  • Changes in their teeth – for example, tooth sensitivity or damage 
  • Mouth changes – for example, bad breath, infections 
  • Damage to the backs of their hands, knuckles or fingers – e.g., scarring or marks – this may be caused by making themselves throw up  
  • Psychological signs

Your child’s mood may change as a natural part of adolescence, but there are a few warning signs that could be related to eating disorders: 

  • Moods becoming intense and unpredictable
  • Insomnia 
  • low self esteem 
  • Becoming obsessive about their appearance and how others see them 
  • Appearing stressed at or about mealtimes 
  • Panic attacks
  • Guilt after mealtimes
  • Self-harming
  • Hints of suicidal thoughts

What do to if your child is struggling

Start a conversation 

It’s not easy to start a conversation with your child about their eating, but it’s key to give them the change to explain what they’re going through. 

Find a place that’s calm and quiet. Ahead of the conversation think about how your child might react to help you decide the best way to approach them – would they prefer a face-to-face chat, a note, voice note? 

Check in with them again after your first chat. This gives them further chances to open up about how they’re feeling and share anything you’ve noticed. Keeping in regular contact helps reduce the chances of your child perceiving your care as an accusatory tone.

Expand the conversation by asking if there’s anything causing them to feel bad about themselves. From there, you can talk through possible ways to help, with help from a health professional.

Try not to worry too much if your child doesn’t expand on how they’re feeling when you approach them. They may need time to come to you. 

Listen without judgement

When your child is ready to speak, validate their feelings rather than making suggestions or dismissing them. Reassure them that you’ll be there for them, whatever they’re going through. Don’t make yourself out to be an eating disorders expert, just stick with the facts they give you – try not to make assumptions on the reason behind the changes in their appearance or behaviour. 

Take care of yourself

Helping your child through an eating disorder can be distressing. Remember that many eating disorders have complex causes and it’s not necessarily happened because of anything you’ve done. Try to focus on helping them with their treatment and recovery as this is a more productive use of your time and energy. 

It’s important to make time to take care of yourself and to seek any support you need. Try to make time to do the things that you enjoy, whether it’s a group exercise class or reading a few chapters of a book.