By Shonda Brown, clinical dietitian at CHOC at Mission Hospital
Eating disorders are complex psychological disorders that often include medical, nutritional and social complications. During the past several years, there has been an increase in cases seen among adolescents and teens. Eating disorder behaviors are difficult to recognize and may go unnoticed until the eating disorder has become so severe that a child needs to be hospitalized for medical recovery.
Eating disorder warning signs in children and teens
Below are some warning signs that a child might be suffering from an eating disorder. This is not an all-inclusive list but is intended to give a variety of examples of common symptoms.
- Repetitive excuses for not being hungry during mealtimes like, “I already ate,” or “I’ll eat later.”
- Using the bathroom during or immediately after meals.
- Obsessive thoughts or activities surrounding food or exercise. Examples may include preparing food for others without eating the food themselves or constantly reading food labels. Some others may be insisting on exercising every day or increasing exercise in addition to participation in sport.
- Dieting or measuring food. Some common diets include cutting out food groups, switching to gluten-free foods, “clean eating” or being vegan.
- Food rituals. Examples include tearing food into tiny pieces or only eating out of a specific bowl.
- No longer eating with the family or insisting on eating meals in their room
- Large amounts of food disappearing from the pantry or refrigerator.
- Making negative comments about their appearance or weight or constantly looking at their body in the mirror.
- Weight loss or wearing baggy clothes to hide their weight loss.
- Changes in mood such as increased irritability, or loss of interest in activities.
- Physical changes including loss of menses, dizziness upon standing, extreme fatigue or dental problems.
Tips for helping a child that may be struggling with an eating disorder
It is not uncommon for parents to feel uncertain about how to help their child when they see them struggling to eat. Here are a few tips:
- Transition back to eating meals as a family.
- Set limits if your child does not eat the meal or snack prepared. Some examples may be, “if you do not eat lunch, you will not have the energy to participate in soccer,” or “since you did not eat your snack, I will keep your phone and you can earn it back when you eat at the next mealtime.”
- Providing incentives for eating can be helpful. Some examples may be “when you complete your dinner, we can watch that new movie you have been wanting to see,” or “if you continue to complete your breakfast before going to school, you can hangout with your friends this weekend.”
How to get your child help for an eating disorder
- Schedule a visit with your pediatrician. Frequent visits may be warranted to keep a close eye on your child’s health.
- Make an appointment to see a mental health provider. Contact your insurance company to obtain a list of providers that are covered by your insurance.
Learn more about eating disorders with these helpful resources
- National Eating Disorders Association: NEDA
- Families Empowered and Support Treatment of Eating Disorders: F.E.A.S.T.
- Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder by James Lock & Daniel Le Grange
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At CHOC, we specialize in providing a full continuum of pediatric nutrition services, including inpatient and outpatient services, depending on our patients’ needs.