While eating disorders usually develop in the teenage years, the seeds of these disorders are often sown in childhood and the number of pre-adolescent children already suffering from full-blown eating disorders is on the rise, with children as young as seven being admitted to hospital for treatment. As someone who suffered from bulimia during my teens, I find this heart-breaking, but not surprising. More than ever before, children today are bombarded with mixed-messages and daily pressure from media, social media and society about body image, obesity levels, celebrity culture, body shaming and what to eat and not to eat. Is it any wonder that they are confused and that some turn to unhealthy eating habits to try to protect themselves from the inner turmoil they are experiencing?
Sometimes, the red flags can be missed because they look like normal behaviour. However, if parents are able to detect the warning signs early enough, most children can be steered towards a much healthier mindset and a lot of pain can be avoided, not only for the child, but for the whole family.
So, what are some of the warning signs that your child might have, or be at risk of developing, an eating disorder?
Obsessive criticism of their own or other people’s bodies: If a child says they are too fat, regardless of what size they are, that is a sign that they are not happy with their own body and they are looking for validation and acceptance. This is a situation that needs to be handled delicately because the child’s feelings of self-worth are very fragile. First and foremost, they are looking to the parent for reassurance that they are loved and accepted exactly as they are. This is also an opportunity to have a sensitive discussion with the child about their body image and where this feeling of being too fat came from. If the child genuinely has a weight problem, then this is a time when parent and child could explore ways to deal with the issue in a healthy, non-shaming and supportive way. If the child is not outside of the normal weight for age and size, then it is an opportunity to have a discussion about the influence of social media and peer pressure regarding body image. Similarly, if a child is often critical of other people’s bodies, this can also be a sign that they are looking for validation of their own self-worth from how they look and how they compare to other people, which could lead to unhealthy eating habits in the future.
Abnormal weight gain or loss: Any unexplained weight increase, or decrease, is a warning sign to be vigilant.
Being bullied or excluded from a friendship group: This can lead to feelings of low self-worth and hopelessness which can cause a child to withdraw into themselves. The feeling of emptiness that a child can experience when this happens can make them want to disappear, so they starve themselves or, alternatively, want to fill the emptiness by binge eating. A child who is going through tough times needs to be allowed to express their feelings to a loving and supportive adult and be reassured that the difficult time will pass.
Avoidance of Family Meals/Missing Food in the home: If a child is reluctant to partake in family meals, or frequently says they have already eaten at a friend’s house or they are just not hungry, this could mean that they are not eating at all, or they are binge eating in private. Similarly, if food regularly goes missing from the fridge or cupboard, this could be a sign that the child is bingeing secretly to stuff down their feelings.
Going to the bathroom immediately after eating: Going to the bathroom immediately after a meal on a regular basis is a big red flag. The child could be throwing up what they have eaten. Bulimics are very good at hiding this behaviour from their family. They often turn on the taps to drown out the sounds of the retching.
As someone who used to suffer from negative body image issues and bulimia, I can honestly and confidently say that the message that all children want and need to hear from their parents is that they are loved and accepted exactly as they are. In addition, if we want to help our young people to grow up to be healthy, confident and empowered adults then we need to promote body diversity and instil the importance of respecting and loving their bodies, rather than striving for a media made-up ideal that doesn’t exist.
Helena Grace Donald is an empowerment coach, teen mentor, and the author of Learning to Love the Girl in the Mirror: A Teenage Girl’s Guide to Living a Happy and Healthy Life available on Amazon