Eating disorders in young people – a parent’s guide

The guide will allow parents to more effectively identify the main types of eating disorders by looking at the symptoms of each disorder and the potential causes of eating disorders in children.

This guide aims to help parents who might suspect their child has an eating disorder. The guide will allow parents to more effectively identify the main types of eating disorders by looking at the symptoms of each disorder and the potential causes of eating disorders in children. This guide also discusses various treatments available. The parent’s role within the diagnosis and treatment process is considered crucial to the individual’s recovery.

1.      Eating Disorders Explained

If you’re wondering whether your child has an eating disorder, you might be worried about asking them about it. However, the sooner you ask them about it, the better. There are two main types of eating disorders that are known to effect young people:

Anorexia Nervosa:

Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder which involves an individual starving the body, causing themselves to become dangerously thin. Anorexia affects both male and females, but is commonly associated with girls between the ages of 14 and 25.

Common Symptoms:

·        Substantial weight loss
·        Limited food and drink consumption and excessive amounts of exercise.
·        Fear of being at a normal weight and the distortion of body image.
·        Can be associated with depression, self-harm, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
·        May develop significant physical complications, e.g. slow heart rate, low blood pressure, constipation.

·        Infertility and loss of menstrual periods.
·        Brittle bones
·        Tiredness due to starvation.
·        Rational decisions and concentration become difficult.
·       Withdrawal from social activities and impairment in all aspects of development.

Bulimia Nervosa:

Bulimia Nervosa is an eating disorder which involves binge-eating, consuming three or four times more than your typical amount of food. This is continued with self-induced vomiting or taking laxatives to try to avoid putting on weight. Anyone can suffer from bulimia. However, it is normally linked to women ages 15-25.

Common symptoms:

·        Preoccupation with food and weight, the individual may constantly be judging their own appearance. They will feel a huge amount of guilt after binge eating.
·        Can be associated with depression, low self-esteem, loneliness and anxiety. 

·        Problems with internal organs due to an insufficient amount of minerals.
·        Gastrointestinal complications.
·        Damage to tooth enamel.
·        A damaged throat and vocal chords.
·        Swollen cheeks  

There are also ‘atypical’ eating disorders. This sort of disorder does not match the symptoms criteria needed to clarify it as an eating disorder. For example, an individual’s weight may not meet the threshold for the problem to be referred to as an eating disorder. Children and teenagers often suffer from atypical eating disorders. However, atypical eating disorders are still a cause for concern.  

2.      Are eating disorders common?

Over 725,000 men and women in the UK are affected by eating disorders. Anyone can develop an eating disorder. However, women are the most like to suffer especially during adolescence. It is important not to forget that boys also suffer from eating disorders – up to 10% of people with eating disorders are male. Although eating disorders are considered as very serious, they can be treated.  

3.      Why do people develop eating disorders?

There is no single reason for a person to develop an eating disorder.

Teenagers are growing up in a world where appearance seems like the most important thing. Therefore, they can become more self-conscious. Adolescence provides a tendency for dieting which can lead to the development of an eating disorder. Causes can include changes at school, family problems, peer pressure and bullying.

People with eating disorders tend to have really low self-confidence and will judge themselves critically and almost constantly in terms of their weight and body image. They cope with these thoughts by extreme dieting, vomiting, excessive exercise and binge eating.

Eating disorders are commonly linked to other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.  

4.      What should you do if you think your child has an eating disorder?

·        Talk to your child about any worries or problems they may have. Young people with eating disorders can be relieved that someone has noticed their problem. However, it is not uncommon for young people to avoid talking about their disorder and may deny that there is any sort of problem. However, talking is an important first step in terms of tackling the disorder.
·        The key is to communicate without coming across as judgmental or argumentative. Speak calmly and be careful not to criticise or get angry or upset. Give them time and let them know that you’re ready to talk to them when they’re ready.
·        You should encourage healthy eating habits and see if your child continues with disordered eating behaviors. Do not wait too long before seeking advice if you are worried. It can be useful to discuss this with your child’s school as they are likely to notice the signs of an eating disorder first.  

5.      Treatment options available

Go and discuss your concerns with the family GP. Try insisting that your child visits the GP. The GP will advise on the appropriate treatment available and will make the appropriate referrals.

·        Most young people with a definite eating disorder need outpatient treatment with a specialist team. Teams will provide dietary advice and specialist psychotherapies. They will also keep tabs on the young person’s physical health.
·        Therapy – Specialist family therapy is very helpful for eating disorders in young people, especially anorexia nervosa. Supported self-help programmes and individual therapies may also be useful.
·        Inpatient treatment – On average 10 - 20 % of young people require inpatient treatment. This is because they are so physically unwell. This treatment, if necessary, can be forced against their will.  

6.      Love and Support

People with eating disorders are often lonely and isolated. Love and support from family and friends will prevent the individual feeling helpless and angry.
·        You should try to avoid talking about appearance because comments can be misunderstood.
·        You should appreciate that your child is going through a difficult challenge when it comes to eating food appropriately.
·        Don’t give up. 

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