The One Thing NOT To Do If Your Child Has An Eating Disorder

Young people are particularly at risk of eating disorders.

Almost 10,000 children and young people started eating disorder treatment between April and December 2022 — this was an increase of a quarter compared to the same period in 2021 and up by almost two thirds since before the pandemic, according to the NHS.

Though eating disorders impact all ages, young people are particularly at risk. A factor that can play a part is bullying and teasing, according to Beat, a UK eating disorder charity.

Alongside this, changes such as moving to university and being in an unfamiliar environment with academic stress can also play a part. Eating disorders often also impact those around the individual suffering, such as family and friends who will be emotionally involved.

Anna Cohen, child psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP) has worked with young people with an eating disorder for almost twenty years in NHS CAMHS services.

Speaking to HuffPost UK, she offered advice for parents, including what not to do if your child has an eating disorder.

Early warning signs:

- An increased interest in calorie counting, with a child perhaps downloading a calorie counter app, and asking for specific shopping and cooking, or deciding to prepare all their own meals.

- Skipping breakfast and lunch. Refusing to eat treats that they previously enjoyed. Clothes visibly too large and dropping a clothes size. Insisting on cooking for other people but not eating any of it themselves.

- Excessive exercising at the gym or in their bedroom. Looking pale, feeling cold to the touch, complaining of feeling dizzy. Seeming low in mood and withdrawing into their bedroom.

Advice for parents:

The main thing Anna advises not to do is to get into an argument about the situation.

Anna said: “Try to avoid being drawn into arguments with your child around food and eating.”

She gave an example of a situation to explain how an argument could impact a child with an eating disorder:

“Alex frowned and described how he and his partner had found their daughter Keira, who has a diagnosis of anorexia, exercising compulsively in her room again. Keira snapped back at him and accused him of invading her privacy. Alex responded that she was destroying their family. Within moments Keira and her father were in a full scale argument.”

“It is very hard for parents to understand and know how to respond to a child with an eating disorder. Parents can feel at times frozen and helpless and at other times, frustrated and disappointed as their child persists in their apparently self-destructive behaviour.

“It is very easy to become angry and all sorts of long buried feelings and difficulties within the family can emerge and be played out.

“An argument can create even more distance between you and your child, as they are not able to understand your frustration and feel hurt and angry in return. Noticing when you are beginning to feel angry and then consciously taking steps to stay calm or take yourself away will help your child. It gives your child the message that you are able to bear their complicated and painful feelings and stay alongside them. This is an important step in the return to wellbeing of your child and family.“

Instead, Anna advises to take your child to your GP for physical health to be checked and weight taken. Your GP can refer your child to the local Family Eating Disorder Service urgently if needed.

“If your child is seriously unwell, make sure you yourself receive therapeutic support so that you can continue to be emotionally present for your child,” she added.

Help and support: