THE BLOG

A Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders in Young People

01/12/2015 09:48 GMT | Updated 27/11/2016 10:12 GMT

An estimated 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder and the majority of them are between the ages of 14 and 25. It affects both sexes, with up to 10% of sufferers being male.

But what are eating disorders, how can you spot whether your child may have one, and how can you help them get treatment?

What are eating disorders?

There are two main eating disorders that affect young people. These are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Although they're both very different, they do have one thing in common, namely that a young person suffering from either condition has an unnatural attitude to food.

People with anorexia deliberately starve themselves by closely limiting the amount they eat each day and often this is accompanied by compulsive behavior like weighing themselves after every meal.

Bulimia nervosa sufferers, on the other hand, binge eat, sometimes consuming as much as four times the normal daily intake of calories and then deliberately make themselves sick or take laxatives to avoid putting on weight.

There's a third condition that doctors call an atypical eating disorder. In this, while the sufferer's symptoms and behavior might be like ones caused by anorexia or bulimia, it doesn't meet the full list of criteria to be categorised as either.

Symptoms and signs

There's a long list of physical effects that an eating disorder can have on a sufferers' body. For anorexia these can include dangerous weight loss, low blood pressure, brittle bones and infertility and in bulimia internal organs can be damaged by not getting the right nutrients and there can also be throat and tooth damage caused by frequent vomiting.

As serious mental illnesses there are also a number of psychological effects and these often include depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Even though young people usually try to hide the fact that they have an eating disorder from their parents there are a number of warning signals. Typical signs that someone may be suffering from anorexia, besides the very obvious extreme weight loss, include an abnormal pre-occupation with diet, excessive exercising and social withdrawal.

Bulimia may be harder to spot because the binge eating, and subsequent purging, may well be kept secret but there will still be an unnatural interest in food and drink.

Getting the right treatment

But, while a parent might be able to spot the possible symptoms of an eating disorder, knowing how to help a child can be difficult.

However awkward it might seem, the very first thing to do is to talk to the young person about it in a calm, non-judgemental way. Try to discover what they're anxious about and to understand their state of mind. And remember, there's a good chance that they'll be relieved to be able to talk.

As Natalie, who suffered from bulimia from her late teens into her twenties, puts it: "Eventually it all becomes about being in control. I was arguing with myself; trying to reason with myself that what I was doing was dangerously unhealthy . . . a part of you wants to cry out for help, hoping someone will catch you and force you to get help, but you can't ask for help".

It can also be a good idea to arrange a GP appointment because they will be able to let you know what

other help, for example counselling, is available.

There are also a number of private treatment centers all-round the country as well as a great deal of online information and advice available from organisations like The Priory Group.

Above all, however, the most important thing any parent can do is to keep talking to the young person. Here's what Hannah, someone who suffered from anorexia as a teenager said: "The one thing that really saved me and helped me on the road to recovery, was that my parents made sure they kept talking about it to me, asking how I felt and making me feel like they understood.".