Written by Abigail Graham, LMSW, clinically reviewed by Jenny Ryan, LCSW-C

In the age of social media, it’s no wonder children and teens have a more distorted view of body image than ever.

In fact, 77% of children ages 12 and up dislike their bodies, and  45% say they are regularly bullied about how they look, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

So, how can we help our children avoid these body image concerns and develop a healthy relationship with food? In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we’re breaking down some of the common signs of eating disorders in kids and teens, along with resources for parents looking to better support their children. 

Common Types of Eating Disorders in Children

There are multiple types of eating disorders that have very different symptoms, so keep in mind that not all eating disorders look the same. Here’s a brief summary of four of the most common eating disorders affecting children and teens: 

Anorexia Nervosa: Children with anorexia often fear food and may view themselves as ‘fat’ even if they are underweight

Binge-Eating Disorder: Children with this disorder may find themselves consuming large amounts of food at one sitting. This may take place in secret and is typically accompanied by significant feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment.

Bulimia Nervosa: After engaging in binge eating, a child or teen with bulimia will purge or self-inflict vomiting.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: Children with this disorder are not concerned with body image or weight. Instead, they will refuse or avoid certain foods based on sensory sensitivities and/or a fear of consequences like choking or vomiting

3 Signs of Eating Disorders in Children and Teens

1. Obsession with weight, calories, and exercise

The obsession with weight and caloric intake is more prevalent in preteens and teenagers. Typically, the teen will have a primary focus on the ‘fad’ diets, only taking in a certain amount of calories, and frequently seen weighing themselves. Another sign is if the teen becomes heavily focused on working out to burn calories. 

2. Discomfort with eating in public 

If your child is avoiding meal times or denying that they are hungry, especially if you have not seen them eat throughout the day, this may be a sign of an eating disorder. 

3. Change in appearance

If you notice that your child begins to hide their body under multiple layers, this may be a sign of a significant amount of weight loss or weight gain that the child is attempting to hide. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not all eating disorders will result in a dramatic change in weight, and anyone can have an eating disorder regardless of what they look like.

If you begin to notice some of these signs of disordered eating, extreme weight fluctuations, or excessive exercise habits, your child may have an eating disorder. Start by opening up a conversation with your child and their primary care physician. They will be able to provide support and further information about treatment options. 

Modeling a Healthy Relationship with Food

Children learn from their parents’ behaviors. So, if you want to help your children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies, start by looking carefully at the positive or negative example you might be setting, without even realizing it. 

Avoid talking negatively about your body or other people’s bodies, and set a positive example during meal times by talking about the benefits of food and encouraging mindful eating practices. 

It’s also important to avoid labeling food as “good,” “bad,” “healthy,” or “unhealthy.” Using neutral language will help your children avoid restrictions and show them that food gives them energy and nutrients they need. 

Through these habits and conversations, you can show your children that no matter their size they should love, accept, and appreciate their bodies. Help them understand that food helps their bodies learn, play, and grow! 

Reach Out for Help When You Need It

If you believe your child has an eating disorder, there are plenty of tools and resources available to you. Consider reaching out to the National Eating Disorder Hotline at 800-931-2237 or the ANAD Eating Disorders Helpline at 888-375-7767. 

Therapy can also be an effective treatment for eating disorders. Contact us here to see if your family is eligible for Backpack Healthcare’s services.

Whatever your family is experiencing around food, body image, and eating, you don’t have to go through it alone!

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