Signs your child may be affected by an eating disorder

Recognising an eating disorder is not always the easiest thing. If someone is affected by an eating disorder, they may be going to great lengths to hide it both from those around them and themselves. That is, they may be in denial about the fact that they have an eating disorder.

A 2012 study of Irish adolescents (1,841 girls, 1,190 boys) found that greater maturity in girls was associated with increased eating concerns, a higher drive for thinness and higher levels of body dissatisfaction. For boys, greater maturity was associated with lower body dissatisfaction and lower scores in the drive for thinness. Early maturing girls and late maturing boys show elevated levels of disordered eating.

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According to the Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study of 2014, for children aged 12-17 years, peers, the media and self-perception are the most frequently cited influencing factors on body image. Numerous other factors listed by children include clothes, sports players, parents, other people, and how one feels after eating and exercising.

77% of Irish adolescents ranked body image as being important to them. 57% of the young people surveyed expressed some level of satisfaction with their body image, which means 43% were dissatisfied. Negative body image is considerably more prevalent among girls than boys. When asked about what influences their body image, comparison with others ranks as the most negative influence on girls’ body image and bullying as the most negative influence on boys’ body image.

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Tell tale signs are often behavioural and emotional – although an eating disorder affects people physically, it is easy to forget it is actually a psychological issue. Which is why it’s important for parents to first educate themselves about what behaviours they should be looking out for and what emotions those behaviours may be linked to in order to understand why this is happening.

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Some ways you can source this information are:

• Read all you can about eating disorders.

• Look for support groups that can give you more information.

• Speak to your family doctor if you have specific medical concerns.

• If you know of someone else who has been through this experience, speak with them and ask their advice.

Approaching this issue, it is essential to keep in mind that this is an issue with how your child is feeling, rather than actually being about food. It can be difficult to do your initial wellbeing assessment of your child as they may go to lengths to keep it from you, hiding evidence of purging, weight loss or gain, or food. Patience is essential to discern whether it is an eating disorder or disordered eating. Picky eating is common and can later morph into a form of disordered eating that has the potential to become very problematic.

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Observing your child’s eating habits should be done discreetly at first. Check out’s checklist below of what you should be noticing when observing.

Some questions you can ask yourself:

• Is your child’s behaviour having an impact beyond mealtimes?

• Is their behaviour impacting on their personality, or on the rest of their day-to-day life?

• Does your child see food as a source of energy and nutrition, or is some other value being attached?

• How does your child react to mealtimes? Is there an overly emotional response?

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Your ability to answer these questions will be heavily dependent on their age and on other factors around your lifestyles. There are also signs and symptoms to watch out for that aren’t necessarily food related such as:  

• Weight loss

• Evidence of low self-image

• Pre-occupation with weight and body shape

• Pre-occupation with food, and in particular with preparing food for others that they themselves won't eat

• Excessive exercising

• Withdrawal from regular activities and social situations

If you are noticing some or all of the above signs, your child may have an issue that you will need to talk to them about. For further information on how to do so, see