A parent’s guide to eating disorders in young people

With advice, support and information

Of all the worries that a parent may have, being concerned that your son or daughter may have an eating disorder is probably one of the most difficult to deal with. For example, it’s not an easy subject to raise and if you do manage to start the conversation knowing exactly what to do and say can be a real minefield. So, while you may be trying to help, your intervention might even have the opposite effect.

But don’t despair. There are ways to help that have been shown to be very effective and there’s also plenty of useful and practical online information available too from the Priory Group.


How to spot an eating disorder

Teens are notoriously faddy about food, often refusing to eat what the rest of the family is enjoying, and girls especially, are careful about their diets because they’re responding to peer and media pressure to conform to an idealised vision of the size and shape they think they should be.

While these aren’t signs of an eating disorder in themselves, once behaviour toward food starts becoming more extreme, it may be a reason for concern.

The two main eating disorders that affect young people - anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are very different in nature so the signs will also be very diverse. People with anorexia closely limit the amount they eat each day and this is often accompanied by compulsive behaviour like frequently weighing themselves throughout the day and having irrational thoughts about food. As Hannah, someone who suffered from anorexia from the age of 17 put it, “All I saw in the mirror was a fat girl (looking back on photos, I was definitely nowhere near fat). The food I was eating wasn't particularly unhealthy, but in my mind if it wasn't fruit or vegetables - it was bad”.

On the other hand, people with bulimia tend to binge eat and then make themselves sick and/or take large doses of laxatives to make sure that they don’t put on any weight.

It goes without saying that both illnesses can have some very serious short and long term effects on sufferers including dangerous levels of weight loss, missed periods and infertility, brittle bones, damage to internal organs and even death so it’s easy to see why it’s important to identify the illnesses early and take steps to help.

Finding the right treatment

If you do ever suspect that your child is affected, the first thing to do is to have a chat with them about any fears or insecurities they might be feeling. These are often are at the root of eating disorders and it’s easier to talk about these than to come out and directly question your child about their eating habits.

 In fact, you might be surprised how easily your child opens up to you as they may have been secretly longing for the chance to talk about the problem. For example here’s what one bulimia sufferer called Natalie has said about this, “ . . . 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”.

Trying to persuade your child to come to the GP with you can also be a sensible move as they will be able to help with a diagnosis and let you know about any treatment that could be helpful. They could even refer your child to somewhere like The Priory Group which has private treatment centres all around the UK.

Above all, it’s vital that you do all those things that parents do best and give unconditional love, support and understanding. And together, along with professional support, you’ll be able to help your child back to health.

Further support

If you are concerned about your child and their relationship with eating, please visit our advice page on eating disorders.

You can also talk in confidence to an adviser from the eating disorders charity Beat by calling their helpline on 0345 634 1414. They also have a designated youth helpline on 0345 634 7650.

Please visit the NHS advice page on eating disorders for more information, advice and support.




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