Eating disorders in children and young people

Signs your child might be experiencing an eating disorder

Thoughts and feelings

They may verbally say they feel fat, ugly and feel not good enough. They also may tell you they are constantly thinking about food and fixated with food.


Distorted perception of body shape and weight, obsessive behaviour attached to eating such as counting calories or cutting food up into small pieces, secrecy, difficulty sleeping, wearing baggy clothes, vomiting, taking laxatives or diet pills, and excessive exercise. Saying they have eaten earlier or will eat later. Strict dieting and avoiding food they think is fattening. Missing meals (fasting). Avoiding eating with other people. Hiding food. Eating very slowly. Social withdrawal and isolation.  Making themselves sick. Calluses on the backs of the hands if fingers are used to cause vomiting and smelly breath from vomiting. Hoarding food, empty food wrappers found. 

Physical symptoms 

Substantial weight loss or weight gain, constipation, abdominal pains, dizzy spells, feeling faint or, in fact, fainting, lethargy, bloated stomach, poor blood circulation making them feel cold, dry skin and delayed puberty.

How you can support your child/young person experiencing an eating disorder  

  • If they are not ready to talk about their problem, reassure them that you will be there when they are ready. However, don’t leave it too long to broach the subject again. Remember, eating disorders thrive on secrecy.
  • If they acknowledge that they need help, encourage/help them to seek it as quickly as possible.
  • If they tell you there’s nothing wrong, even if they seem convincing, keep an eye on them and keep in mind that they may be ill even if they don’t realise it. Denial that there’s a problem is common – you were worried for a reason, so trust your judgment.
  • Prepare what you want to say and how you’re going to say it.
  • Avoid talking just before or after mealtimes, as this can be the most anxiety-provoking time.
  • Say, “I am worried” rather than “You need to get help”.
  • Don’t be disheartened if you are met with a negative response, as the illness affects how the person thinks. 
  • Don’t label them, “I think you have an eating disorder”.
  • Don’t be judgemental or confrontational.
  • Avoid shaming them and telling them they are being “silly” or ask, “What did you do that for”.