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Three warning signs for eating disorders

Ahead of Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Dr Robin Clark, Medical Director at Bupa UK highlights three warning signs to watch out for in your child for the Hippocratic Post.

We know from The Department of Education’s 2022 state of the nation report that children are still struggling with issues related to eating more than they did before the pandemic, so this Eating Disorder Awareness Week (27th February – 5th March), Dr Robin Clark, Medical Director at Bupa UK, shares the tell-tale signs of eating disorders that all parents need to know.

Physical signs

Your child’s eating habits may cause physical changes to their appearance – with some more obvious to spot than others. If you spot a combination of any of the below symptoms, it could be a sign that they’re struggling:
• Exhaustion
• Weight changes: becoming overweight or underweight
• Weight stagnation – absence of gradual weight gradually, as expected during usual adolescence
• Becoming dizzy
• Feeling faint or fainting
• Stomach pains
• Struggling to keep warm
• Teeth issues, e.g., sensitivity or damage
• Bad breath
• Mouth infections
• Mouth complaints, e.g., mouth infections, bad breath
• Changes to their teeth, e.g., damage or sensitivity
• Damage to the backs of their hands, knuckles or fingers – e.g., scarring or marks – this may be caused by self-induced vomiting

Behavioural signs

You know your child better than anyone, so you might notice if they’re acting differently and their relationship with food has changed. Some signs to look out for include:
• A sudden interest in cooking and preparing food, but no interest in eating it
• Eating more food than usual, but their weight doesn’t change
• Cutting up food into small pieces before eating it
• Using specific cutlery to eat with
• Visiting the bathroom after each meal
• Concealing more of their body by wearing baggy clothes
• Withdrawing themselves from social interactions
• A compulsion to exercise regularly, or excessively
• Eating secretly, or on their own
• Weighing themselves frequently

Psychological signs

As your child gets older and their hormones change, it’s natural for them start behaving differently. However there several signs to watch out for that could mean they have, or may be developing, an eating disorder:
• Intense and unpredictable mood swings – for example, becoming angrier, struggling with anxiety or depression
• Struggling with insomnia
• Noticing a markable drop in their self esteem
• Obsessive about appearance and how others perceive them
• Mealtime stress
• Panic attacks
• Feeling or expressing guilt after mealtimes
• Self-harming
• Indications of suicidal thoughts

I think my child may have an eating disorder – what do I do?
When your child is struggling, you want to do everything you can to make things better for them. Follow your instinct in line with professional guidance to support them sensitively and get the help they need.

Start a conversation without judgement

Starting a conversation about eating disorders can be hard, but giving your child the opportunity to share what they’re going through is an important step. Trying to find a calm place where you’re unlikely to be interrupted.
Ahead of this conversation it can be useful to think about how your child will react to help decide on the best approach. For example, would a text message or voice note work best so they have time to process the information, or would it be better to sit down together talk things through?

Regularly asking your child how they’re doing can invite them to open up and give you the chance to share changes you’ve notices in their behaviour. This way of approaching the conversation helps to avoid an accusatory tone, which your child could find intimidating.
Expand the conversation by asking if there’s anything making them feel bad about themselves and if it could be having affecting their day-to-day life. This is your chance to talk through possible solutions together in line with help from a health professional.
Your child might not open up every time you broach conversation but don’t let this dishearten you. Give them time to come to you, keep calm and show them you’re ready to listen without judgement.

Don’t dismiss

Nobody is expecting you to be an eating disorder expert, but when your child is ready to speak to you it’s important to validate how they feel, rather than offering advice or dismissing them.
When responding, make it clear that you’ll support them with whatever they might be going through. Try to stick to the facts they give you about their circumstances and experiences, rather than making assumptions on why their behaviour or appearance might have changed.

Don’t forget to take extra care of yourself

Seeing your child struggling may leave you wondering if their eating habits have changed because of something you’ve done. Eating disorders have lots possible and often complex causes. Try to focus on helping them with their treatment and recovery as this is a more productive use of your time and energy.

Supporting another person through an eating disorder can be draining and upsetting, so it’s important to make time to take care of yourself. Seek any support you need, and lean on those you’re close to, or health professionals, to offload and get any required guidance, whilst respecting your child’s confidentiality.
Though you’ll be going through your own hardships, don’t stop doing the things that you enjoy. Anything from a relaxing bath to an exercise class can make a big difference towards keeping your wellbeing in check.

State of the nation 2022: children and young people’s wellbeing (publishing.service.gov.uk)

State of the nation 2022: children and young people’s wellbeing Research report February 2023 Department for Education page 67

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