A brief guide for Parents and Carers: Navigating Eating Disorders in Children and young people.
Caring for a child with an eating disorder is a demanding journey, and it is going to have an impact on you and your family- any serious illness is going to challenge and change things for everyone. Having the right information and support is going to make things a little less stressful for you as you help your child on their path to recovery.
This brief guide aims to provide parents and carers with an understanding of eating disorders, signs to look out for, seeking help, supporting your child, and maintaining your own well-being throughout the process.
What are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that can have a huge impact on someone’s mental and physical health. They can affect anyone with any body shape or lifestyle – regardless of their gender, culture, age or ethnicity.
Eating disorders are complex and multi-faceted , resulting from a combination of mental health, genetic, biological , social and cultural factors.
Some risk factors for developing an eating disorder are:
striving to be perfect in one or more areas
poor body image
social pressure to be thin
problems coping and dealing with stress
challenges in relationships with friends and/or family
abuse or trauma
taking part in a sport or activity that puts a lot of emphasis on weight or size (modelling, ballet, gymnastics, wrestling)
type 1 diabetes
Disordered behaviours around food and eating can come to be ways to cope with difficult thoughts,' big' feelings and upsetting experiences. Young people might limit how much they eat, consume large quantities of food quickly, or use methods such as making themselves sick to get rid of food from their body.
It's really hard to understand from the outside, but doing these kinds of things might:
make them feel they have a way of coping when things are difficult
make them feel in control, or give them a way of reducing anxiety or panic when they’re overwhelmed
numb or reduce uncomfortable or distressing feelings
Disordered behaviours around food and eating can come to be ways to cope with difficult thoughts,' big' feelings and upsetting experiences.
Over time, these kinds of thoughts and behaviours around food become very fixed and difficult to change – and can rapidly start to take over daily life. When this happens, it can have a hugely negative effect on a young person’s social life and their relationships with friends and family. It can also lead to very serious physical health problems, and affect a young person’s physical growth and development. In very serious cases, and without the right kind of support and treatment, eating disorders can cause death.
But if someone gets the right professional help, the eating disorder can be treated and they can get better. The earlier they get help, the more positive the outcomes.
There are lots of misunderstandings and stereotypes about what someone with an eating disorder will look like. As a parent or carer, it’s important to understand that a young person’s weight or appearance does not determine whether they have a problem. Whatever’s going on, it’s important to find help as soon as you notice behaviours around food that concern you. The sooner they get support, the easier it will be for your child to change their behaviour and find other ways of coping. Getting help early can also prevent physical health problems from developing.
it’s important to understand that a young person’s weight or appearance does not determine whether they have a problem.
Different Types of Eating Disorders:
Anorexia Nervosa: Individuals restrict their food intake significantly, leading to severe weight loss and a distorted body image.
Bulimia Nervosa: People with bulimia engage in episodes of binge eating, followed by compensatory behaviours such as vomiting or excessive exercise.
ARFID (Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder) is an eating disorder where someone avoids eating specific foods, restricts the amount of food they eat, or avoids eating altogether. Far more than just “picky eating,” this can lead to a persistent failure to meet one’s nutritional needs.
Binge-Eating Disorder: This involves recurring episodes of consuming large amounts of food without compensatory behaviours, leading to distress and a lack of control.
Some signs of a Developing Eating Problem or Disorder:
Drastic changes in weight
Obsession with food, dieting, or body image
Avoidance of social events involving food
Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
Unusual food rituals or behaviours
Getting Help and Treatment:
If you suspect your child is struggling with an eating disorder, seeking professional help is crucial. Start by consulting your general practitioner (GP). However, it's important to be well-informed, as some GPs may not be fully conversant with eating disorders. Be persistent, share your concerns, and request a referral to a specialist if necessary. Be prepared for potential delays and waiting lists, and consider seeking support from local eating disorder charities or organizations.
Supporting Your Child:
Encourage open communication: Create a safe and non-judgmental space for your child to express their feelings and concerns.
Participate in treatment: Attend therapy sessions with your child, if appropriate, to better understand their challenges and contribute to their recovery.
Promote a healthy environment: Foster a positive atmosphere at home by encouraging balanced meals, regular physical activity, and self-acceptance.
Looking After Yourself and Relationships:
Educate yourself: Learn about eating disorders, treatment options, and recovery processes to empower yourself in supporting your child effectively.
Seek support: Connect with other parents, support groups, or therapists who specialize in eating disorders to share experiences and gain valuable insights.
Practice self-care: Ensure you prioritize your physical and mental well-being. Take breaks, engage in activities you enjoy, and seek professional help if needed.
Supporting a child with an eating disorder is undoubtedly challenging, but by being informed, patient, and empathetic, you can make a significant difference in their recovery. Remember that seeking help, fostering open communication, and prioritizing your own well-being are crucial steps towards a healthier and happier future for both you and your child.