Could my Child Have an Eating Disorder?

In this article, beat, the national support organisation for people with eating disorders, shows how parents can support their children and help to treat an eating disorder, one small step at a time…

Eating Disorders... the facts

Four years ago Kelly* was an average 17 year old girl. In her final year of Grammar school, she was one of the brightest in her class and was active in the local drama and debating societies. She came from a close-knit family in a well-to-do suburb, and seemed to have the whole world at her feet. But then something changed…

Kelly began to stay at home after school and on the weekends. She would bake huge cakes and eat them in one sitting, before disappearing for hours to the bathroom. She quit the drama and debating clubs, and her school grades began to drop.

Her mother Louise could see the change, and she broached the subject with her daughter. But Kelly didn’t want to talk about it, she couldn’t see any problem…

Kelly is one of the estimated 1.15 million people** in the UK with an eating disorder. Four years on, Kelly has been diagnosed with Bulimia and Anorexia nervosa, and while she has now moved out of home and started university, her eating disorder continues to ravage her mind and body. In this article, beat, the national support organisation for people with eating disorders, shows how mothers like Louise can support their children and help to treat an eating disorder, one small step at a time…

What is an eating disorder?

Problems with food can start when eating is used to cope with boredom, anxiety, anger, loneliness, or sadness. An eating disorder rarely results from a single cause, but is more likely to be a combination of many factors which can leave a person feeling unable to cope. These can include low self-esteem, family or friend relationships, the death of a loved one, problems at work, college or university, lack of confidence, or sexual or emotional abuse. Many people talk about simply feeling ‘too fat’ or ‘not good enough’.

Eating disorders can develop in women and men of all ages and cultural backgrounds, although young women between 15 and 25 years are most likely to be affected. People with an eating disorder often say that controlling their food intake makes them feel in control of their life, but as time goes on, the eating disorder usually begins to control them.

Caring for someone with an eating disorder

Watching your child develop an eating disorder is a painful and frustrating ordeal. Your loved one may be changing at a rapid rate, and you may feel powerless to help.

I can’t get through to her…

As periods of depression, anger, hopelessness and despair take hold, your child’s personality is likely to change. Home may feel like a battleground, and well-meaning parents may feel like the enemy. However, it is important to remember it is the disorder that is taking over, and not the person who is changing.

She shuts me out…

You may feel that you should be able to help because you care for the person who is suffering - but you simply don’t know what to do or say, perhaps because your child is not ready to admit they have a problem.

I feel like it’s my fault…

Instead of soul-searching for the causes of the eating disorder, be positive, try to gather useful information and plan what to do next. The sooner help is found, the more likely it is to succeed. Be supportive when treatment is offered and recognise that it may take some time before the combination of treatment, family support, and the sufferer’s own attitude results in moves towards recovery.

I just don’t know what to say…

Trying to talk to someone you suspect has an eating disorder can be a daunting prospect. Recovery cannot begin in an atmosphere of secrecy or denial and the disorder will not go away by itself, so although talking about it may be difficult, it can often be an essential first step. When you first talk about your worries and concerns, prepare what you will say, and how you will say it. Try to explain that you have noticed the changes in their behaviour, that you are concerned and want to help.

Our whole lives have changed…

Life must go on - try not to allow eating disorders to take over normal, everyday activities or to affect other relationships within the family. Keep some family time together which has nothing to do with the eating disorder or food.

Talk about it

Remember, an eating disorders is not about food, it’s about feelings, so don’t talk about diets and weight loss. Be honest about your own feelings and encourage your child to be honest about theirs. As a parent, you will also need support, and organisations such as beat are there to help.

But I’m hurting, too…

Don’t swap roles with the person who is ill. You should not allow them to be become the ‘carer’ and feel overburdened or guilty about your feelings.

Where did my daughter go?

Show you love and accept them for the person they are – and that you see beyond their eating disorder. It might help to write them a letter describing how special they are and how much you value them.

Practical Measures

For the family there are practical things you can do to minimise anxiety at mealtimes. 

  • You and your child can plan the menu for the following day, taking into account the kind of food that she might be willing to eat. 
  • Agree on who will do the shopping and try to share the food preparation. 
  • If the sufferer is likely to binge, consider reducing the amount of food kept in the cupboard. 
  • Set boundaries and agree on behaviour that will and will not be tolerated. Things that you normally take for granted, like leaving food around or having a set of bathroom scales can cause problems for someone with an eating disorder, so try and identify these potential difficulties and discuss how you can deal with them together.

Everyone who recovers from an eating disorder says how important it was to have unconditional love and support from those who care about them, even when they knew their behaviour was difficult to understand.

*Names have been changed

**Source: beat

Related links

  • Bulimia - an Introduction: Bulimia nervosa is one of the most common eating disorders, and the number of cases appears to be increasing. In this article, beat gives an introduction to the warning signs and effects of Bulimia.
  • Anorexia - an Introduction: Probably the best-known eating disorder, anorexia nervosa affects 1-2% of women. beat, the national support organisation for people with eating disorders, gives an introduction to the warning signs and effects of anorexia.

Find out more

  • Visit the beat website for information on support and treatment services in the UK


Related Advice