When Your Child Shows Signs of an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders are on the rise in the U.S. and throughout the world. Of all ages, teens are the most likely to develop an eating disorder. Eating disorders can seriously harm your child’s health and lead to other emotional and physical problems. Your child will likely show signs of problem eating before a full-blown eating disorder develops. This sheet can help you recognize disordered eating patterns in your child. This can help you get treatment for your child as early as possible so you can protect your child’s health.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is an intense focus on weight, appearance, and body image that causes abnormal eating patterns and changes in other behavior. Eating problems often involve:

  • Eating very large or very small amounts of food

  • Throwing up or otherwise purging food after eating

  • Excessive exercising

  • Abusing certain medicines like diuretics and laxatives.

Types of eating disorders

The most common eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa. Eating so little that body weight is well below normal. It often involves excessive exercise to keep weight down.

  • Bulimia nervosa. Throwing up or otherwise purging after eating to prevent gaining weight. It often involves excessive exercise to keep weight down.

Even if a child’s eating problems don’t fit the definition of either of these 2 diagnoses, he or she may still have an eating disorder. Problems like these are known as an “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” For instance, a child may eat an excessive amount of food without purging it afterward (known as binge eating disorder). These disorders can be very serious. So if your child shows any signs of problem eating, contact a healthcare provider right away.

Do both boys and girls get eating disorders?

Girls by far have the most problem with eating disorders, but boys can also get them. In fact, binge eating disorder affects almost the same number of boys as girls.

What causes eating disorders?

No one really knows what causes eating disorders. Certain things can make your child more likely to develop one. These include:

  • Having a parent or sibling with an eating disorder

  • Being a teen or in the early 20s

  • Taking part in a sport or activity that requires a focus on weight or appearance (such as modeling, wrestling, dance, gymnastics, diving, or long-distance running)

  • Having a perfectionist personality

  • Having another emotional disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder

What are the signs to watch for?

Most teens have issues with their appearance. Teens also tend to have issues around eating. But there are signs you can watch for that may signal a problem. If you notice any of the following, talk to your child’s healthcare provider about treatment:

Food-related signs

  • Constant dieting and trying fad diets (such as liquid diets), or reading lots of diet books

  • Total avoidance of certain foods or a sudden change in diet (such as becoming a vegetarian overnight)

  • Suddenly eating less food

  • Preparing food but not eating it, or eating only a very small amount

  • Refusing to eat with family or friends

  • Going to the bathroom often after meals

Other signs

  • Gaining or losing weight quickly

  • Constant talk about weight

  • Constant checking of weight

  • Negative talk about a specific body part

  • Fear of gaining weight

  • Excessive exercise

  • Seeming to take multiple showers (to hide sounds of throwing up)

  • Taking diet pills or laxatives

  • Missing periods

  • Change in relationship with peers

  • Interest in pro-eating-disorder websites (websites that promote eating disorders)

Treating eating problems

If you think your child has a problem, it’s best to act now. This is better than waiting until the problem gets worse and harder to treat. Early treatment can also help prevent harm to your child’s health. If your child shows signs of disordered eating, take him or her to see a healthcare provider. The healthcare provider can talk to and examine your child. Then, you can discuss treatment options. Treatment will depend on how serious an eating disorder your child has. Work closely with your child’s healthcare providers to follow any treatment plan that is recommended.

Tips for parents

The following tips can help make disordered eating less likely, and will help you catch disordered eating earlier:

  • Have family mealtimes as often as you can. If your child has disordered eating, have sit-down family meals every night. Make your child’s presence at the meal mandatory.

  • Encourage activities that are not related to food or weight that your child finds rewarding. This may include learning a new skill, developing a hobby, or volunteering.

  • Model good food-related behavior for your child. Avoid binge eating or constant dieting yourself.

  • Avoid speaking critically about your child’s weight or appearance, your own weight or appearance, or the weight of others. Praise your child for his or her accomplishments and behaviors, rather than how he or she looks.

  • Pay attention to your child’s behavior and food intake. Be alert for signs of a problem.


For more information, visit the National Eating Disorders Association