By Stephanie Mowery, LCSW

Signs Your Child or Teen May Have an Eating Disorder: What to Look For

Many people think of eating disorders as a stereotypically teenage problem. The adolescent years are a time of change and growth, both physically and emotionally, which can make teens especially susceptible to developing eating disorders. However, many children begin to develop disordered eating patterns prior to their teenage years. If you have concerns about your child, here are some symptoms to look out for:

Abnormal weight loss/appearance changes

Healthy children’s’ and teens’ weight can change quickly, especially given growth spurts around puberty. However, these changes are typically on a steady trajectory upward as the child grows. If your child or teen experiences a large weight loss or weight gain that appears abnormal, it may be worth paying attention to. These symptoms may be particularly important if accompanied by other physical signs including lethargy, dizziness, fainting, hair loss, or digestive issues.

Sudden interest in being ‘healthy’ or specific nutrition plan

Obviously, we all want our children to eat a nutritional, well-balanced diet. However, an excessive adherence to ‘healthy foods’ or diet plans can be a sign that your child is struggling with restrictive patterns. This is of particular importance if accompanied by other symptoms on this list, as it can indicate that food/body image is looming large in your child’s mind. While health is important, a normal diet includes flexibility and occasional treats, and it can be a red flag if your child struggles with that flexibility.

Avoidance of/anxiety around family meals

Family meals provide the opportunity for relational connection and bonding, as well as accountability and support for balanced eating patterns. If your child or teen begins to avoid eating with others or appears anxious when eating in a group or as a family, this can be a sign of disordered patterns. It is also a warning sign if your child becomes very anxious about the types and amounts of food present at family meals or appears to pick at/avoid eating foods they previously enjoyed.

Missing/hidden food

Not all eating disorders involve restriction or avoidance of eating. Sometimes children or teens who struggle with binging patterns will hide or sneak food to eat when they believe others will not notice. You may notice items missing from your pantry/fridge, empty wrappers in the trash, or find a ‘stash’ of treats that your child has hidden. While you may not witness the act of overeating in your child, these signs could indicate emotional or binge eating in secret.

Increased and compulsive exercise

As with nutrition, exercise and physical activity is an important part of health and well-being. However, a strict adherence to an exercise regimen or an excessive amount of exercise can be an indicator of disordered thought patterns. Those with eating disorders typically start exercising as a means to control weight, but exercise can quickly become an addiction and compulsive activity for its own sake. If your child is increasingly fixated on exercise, exercises excessively, or becomes anxious if they cannot exercise, this could be a sign of disordered eating.

Change in mood, increased secretive behavior

Most teenagers experience mood swings and an increased desire for independence as part of normal adolescent development. However, if your child or teen’s demeanor becomes particularly secretive, irritable, or depressed, it could be a sign of something deeper. This may be particularly true if your child appears to be isolating from their friends or becoming increasingly worried and anxious without apparent reason.

Increased focus on appearance size, from your child OR those around them

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for young people, especially teens, to be self-conscious and experience insecurity about their appearance. However, if they seem to be spending excessive amounts of time in front of the mirror, talking about weight/appearance frequently, or weighing themselves very often, this can be a sign of a problem. Sadly, your child is especially at risk if they’ve been a victim of bullying related to their physical appearance or weight or if they have close friends who talk about weight and appearance a lot.

Keeping an eye out for these signs and symptoms is the first step towards addressing any problem behaviors. If your child develops disordered eating patterns, it can be scary and overwhelming. If you think your child may have a problem and you don’t know where to turn, contact a specialist at Northside Consulting for support, guidance, and the next steps.