After a turbulent few years, young people are still struggling with eating disorders more than they did pre-pandemic.
This has been a growing trend since Covid-19 disrupted millions of lives – closing schools, confining kids to their homes and taking hundreds of thousands of lives: mums, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and in some cases, siblings.
During the first lockdown back in March 2020, eating disorders charity Beat said it saw a 302% rise in demand for helpline services.
A year later, more young people than ever received treatment for eating disorders. Almost 10,000 children and young people started treatment between April and December 2021 with record demand for services, according to the NHS – this was up by almost two thirds since before the pandemic.
To mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week (which began on February 27), Dr Robin Clark, medical director at Bupa UK, shares three key signs of eating disorders that parents need to look out for, as well as what to do if you suspect your child is struggling.
1. A change in behaviour
If you notice that your child’s behaviour towards food or their lifestyle changes, it could signal that they’re developing, or already have, an eating disorder, suggests Dr Clark.
Though symptoms may vary from child to child, and the type of eating disorder can influence symptoms, it’s important to look out for a combination of the changes listed below:
- Cutting up their food into small pieces,
- Going to the toilet after every meal,
- Repeatedly weighing themselves,
- Increasing their food intake without appearing to gain weight,
- Only eating with specific cutlery,
- Suddenly becoming interested in cooking, but not eating what they’ve made,
- Fashion changes such as wearing baggier clothes,
- A compulsion to exercise regularly or excessively,
- Eating secretly, or on their own,
- Becoming socially isolated.
2. Attitude changes
It’s not unusual for your child’s attitude to change as they approach adolescence, but some changes may be tell-tale signs that their relationship with food has altered, suggests Dr Clark.
He urges parents to keep an eye out for a combination of the below symptoms:
- Having panic attacks,
- Experiencing intense mood swings,
- A sudden dip in their self esteem,
- Becoming obsessed with their appearance and hyperaware of how others see them,
- Becoming stressed around mealtimes,
- Expressing guilt after eating,
- Changes to usual temperament. For example, becoming angrier, more anxious or depressed,
- Suicidal thoughts and/or or self-harming.
3. Changes to physical appearance
If you notice changes to your child’s physical appearance, they may indicate struggles with their eating habits. Here are some examples of things to look out for:
- Mouth complaints such as mouth infections and bad breath,
- Changes to their teeth such as damage or sensitivity,
- Feeling exhausted,
- Becoming underweight or overweight,
- Marks or scarring on their hands, fingers, or knuckles (which may have been caused by making themselves vomit),
- Staying the same weight throughout adolescence (usually teenagers progressively gain weight),
- Struggling with dizzy spells or fainting,
- Feeling cold,
- Experiencing stomach pains.
How to help your child if you suspect they might have an eating disorder
Seeing your child struggle with their food can be upsetting and frustrating, but it’s important to know how to approach them so they can get the help they need. That’s not to say, however, that this is easy.
Dr Clark says beginning a general conversation with them about how they’re feeling can be a good way to show you’ve noticed what they’re going through.
You might want to find a space that’s quiet and calm, somewhere you’re unlikely to be interrupted, to start the conversation.
“These conversations can be hard going and uncomfortable, but it’s important that they take place – whether it’s face-to-face or via note or message,” says Dr Clark.
You might want to ask your child if there’s anything going on that’s making them feel stressed or upset, and if it’s made anything more difficult for them, like eating.
If they do open up, you can talk through possible solutions and take steps to seek help from a health professional.
It’s important to validate your child’s experience and feelings, says Bupa’s medical director. “This means trying to avoid criticising their behaviour, minimising their feelings, or offering unsolicited advice,” he says.
“Instead, it’s as simple as letting your child know that you hear them, and you’re here for them.”
If they don’t open up, try not to be disheartened – “it may take some time, but showing them that you’re calm and able to listen without judgement will help them to share with you, when they’re ready,” says Dr Clark.
It’s crucial you look after yourself while also helping your child through their struggles – don’t be afraid to seek support for yourself and make time to do things that you enjoy and find relaxing to keep your mental health in check.