An eating disorder is a serious mental illness that involves a person developing thoughts, feelings and eating behaviour which can take over a person’s life and make them very unwell. Eating disorders can involve eating too much or too little and becoming really unhappy, worried and preoccupied with things such as weight and shape. It’s important to remember that lots of people worry about what they look like and from time to time and might be unhappy with their weight or shape, but for someone with an eating disorder these thoughts and feelings can have a serious impact on their life. It can impact on physical health, education and general daily living, such as hanging out with friends, spending time with family, going out and taking part in activities.
There is no one cause of an eating disorder. Young people who develop eating difficulties and disorders often tell us that eating or not eating can be a way of coping with feelings of sadness, worry and stress. Sometimes life stressors such as exams, bullying, friendship or family relationship difficulties and bereavement or loss may play a part in how someone copes or feels about themselves. There are also some personal factors such as having low self-esteem, experiencing anxiety or depression, setting high standards and being perfectionistic and identifying as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transsexual) are sometimes associated with people who develop eating disorders. However, experiencing any one of these things does not necessarily mean that someone will develop an eating disorder or difficulty.
There are many different types of eating disorders and all of them are serious. All eating disorders are treatable and a full recovery is possible. It is important to notice that you might be having a difficulty and ask for help and advice as soon as possible.
Here are some signs that there might be a problem and it’s time to get help;
Not everyone who has an eating disorder will experience all the signs and symptoms. Also, if you are experiencing some of these signs and symptoms this does necessarily mean that you have an eating disorder, but it is important to get help and advice.
It is common for people with eating difficulties to not see that there is a real problem. You may not understand why others are concerned or you might disagree that there is a problem altogether. This may make you feel angry and frustrated.
Try to be honest about how you are feeling with those around you. The quicker you can get help for your difficulties, the better the outcome.
Take things one day at a time, each meal at a time. If you have a difficult meal or snack, start the next one afresh.
Find things that will motivate you to maintain a healthy eating pattern when things are hard. Things like going out with friends, doing sports and activities and achieving goals that you have set yourself.
There are a number of downloadable workbooks and self-help materials you might find useful:
Many young people go through phases of dieting and not eating enough. Sometimes this can tip into developing an eating disorder. Here’s a guide to help you know how best to support your young person if they are experiencing eating difficulties. This is not an exhaustive list; young people may experience symptoms which may not be included on this guide:
Coping / needs support; These are experiences that most young people will have from time to time
Type and nature of distress
It is common for children and young people to experience eating difficulties during childhood and adolescence. These tend to be short term, have no impact on physical health or daily functioning (e.g., going to school, seeing friends, taking part in hobbies or activities) and can be managed with clear boundaries combined with the love and support of parents/ carers.
What you might see or a young person might report
Things to try, support and next steps
See your GP (ask for physical health observations to be done- height, weight, blood pressure, pulse)
Inform your child’s school to share concerns and ask if they have noticed any other concerns
Needs help; These are challenges that some young people experience and may need some support with
The degree to which a young person experiences eating difficulties may cause the young person distress or might have some mild impact on their ability to cope with everyday life such as going to or coping at school, seeing friends or taking part in leisure activities. The family may also be experiencing a degree of stress characterised by more arguments or disagreements around food/ mealtimes, exercise levels/known or suspected vomiting. Other people may be commenting or noticing there is a difficulty or noticing change in weight. These difficulties may have been going on for a few weeks.
Dieting/ restricting food intake
Exercising/ increased activity
Purging (self-induced vomiting)
Eating excessive amounts/ bingeing/ constantly seeking food; gaining weight
YP section- eating difficulties, anxiety, depression (see downloads)
Podcasts and Videos Section on our website
How to support a young person with an eating difficulty here: https://youtu.be/-ApfAzKOy60
How to support a young person with anxiety: https://youtu.be/LMFQHABnH1M
How to support a young person with depression/ in crisis/ who engages in self-harm: https://youtu.be/qBAZQVjSmQU
Other Useful resources:
Needs Specialist Treatment or a Crisis Response; These are difficulties that cause a significant impact and a young person may need specialist support.
The degree to which a young person experiences eating difficulties may cause the young person distress or might have an impact on their ability to cope with everyday life such as going to or coping at school, seeing friends or taking part in leisure activities. The family may also be experiencing a degree of stress characterised by; more arguments or disagreements around food/ mealtimes or exercise levels/known or suspected vomiting. Other people may be commenting or noticing there is a difficulty or noticing change in weight.
The difficulties may have had a sudden onset at a significant level of concern or may have been deteriorating gradually over a long period of time.
Emergency symptoms – seek immediate medical advice
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Video description: Practical tips for families caring for a child with an eating disorder
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