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Eating disorders: What do I do if I think my child has one?

Eating disorders: What do I do if I think my child has one?

Identifying an eating disorder in a child or teen can be difficult. While today’s teens may change their health habits to mimic an ideal body type they may see on social media, there could be several reasons a child or teen may develop an eating disorder including social isolation, family genetics, an illness resulting in accidental weight loss, a diet that has gone off the rails, or a number of other reasons.

If you suspect your child of having an eating disorder, it’s important to start a dialogue of open communication and act quickly to get them the help they need.

What is an eating disorder?

An eating disorder is a health condition. It is an intense focus on weight, appearance, and body image that causes abnormal eating patterns and changes in other behavior. Eating problems often include eating very large or very small amounts of food, throwing up or otherwise purging food after eating, excessive exercising, and/or abusing certain medicines like laxatives or insulin.

It’s good to keep in mind that children and teens are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder if a parent or sibling has experienced one. It typically impacts teens or young adults in their early 20s more than any other age group, but often the first symptoms begin during teenage years. Taking part in a sport or activity that requires a focus on weight or appearance, as well as perfectionistic tendencies or pre-existing anxiety disorders can also elevate an existing negative body image.

There are many types of eating disorders. The most common types include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder

What are the signs to watch for?

When beginning a new year, especially coming out of the holiday season, the top resolution on people’s lists is to lose weight. There is a way to lose weight in a healthy manner, but when eating behaviors that negatively impact health, emotions, and the ability to function in important areas of life, it becomes an eating disorder. It can impact anyone, no matter their age, gender, race, ethnicity, body shape, or size.

What are some signs of a person who may have an eating disorder?

  • Constant dieting and trying fad diets
  • Total avoidance of certain foods or a sudden change in diet
  • Suddenly eating less food
  • Preparing food but not eating it
  • Refusing to eat with family or friends
  • Food rituals like only eating certain amounts or types of food
  • Suddenly transitioning to an increasingly restrictive “healthy” diet
  • Going to the bathroom often after meals
  • Gaining or losing weight quickly
  • Constant talk about weight
  • Constant checking of weight
  • Negative talk about a specific body part
  • Excessive exercise
  • Taking diet pills or laxatives
  • Missing periods
  • Change in relationship with peers
  • Interest in pro-eating-disorder websites

How do you treat an eating disorder?

If you know or suspect your child has an eating disorder, it’s important not to delay approaching them. Act now because early intervention has better success. Take your child to see a healthcare provider or set up an appointment for a virtual care visit with one of our specialists.

Treatment will depend on how the seriousness of your child’s eating disorder, but typically involves a team approach with a mental health provider, dietician, and physician. Some children may require inpatient hospitalization if they are medically unstable.

Tips for parents:

Parents can play a positive role in reducing risk factors and increasing protective factors. You can help play a positive role in your child’s future health:

  • Emphasize and model a healthy relationship with food and body image. Encourage your child to eat a variety of foods, without labeling them as “healthy” or “junk” rather than focusing on value judgements. Model regular exercise to enjoy hobbies and time together instead of as a way to lose weight or achieve a particular body image.
  • Have regularly scheduled family mealtimes. Mealtimes should be focused on positive family interaction rather than food.
  • 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 on eating disorders, visit Children’s Hospital New Orleans Behavioral Health Center at