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Eating disorders are an often misunderstood mental health condition, and the associated shame and judgment can mean that those affected are especially likely to hide their condition from others.
According to BEAT, an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from some form of eating disorder, and this marks Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which aims to raise awareness and banish misconceptions.
Conditions such as anorexia and binge eating disorder can affect people of any age, but often emerge in childhood and adolescence.
And with concealment being a common factor, how can you tell if your child is among those struggling?
Dr Lynne Greene, a former NHS consultant clinical psychologist for 20 years, tells FEMAIl the signs to look out for if you are worried about your child.
It is estimated that 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from some form of eating disorder, but how do you know if your child is among those struggling? Former NHS consultant clinical psychologist of 20 years reveals warning signs to FEMAIL (file image)
There are a host of signs that your child may be developing an unhealthy relationship with food, according to Dr Lynne, senior consultant psychologist for childhood eating disorders and adolescent hospital services.
“It’s not always easy to know if a child’s feeding has become a problem,” she said.
Dr. Lynne Green, Clinical Director at Kooth, reveals the five signs to look out for that could indicate an underlying problem in your child.
“There is a lot of overlap between diet culture and eating difficulties, so spotting the signs early on can be difficult.
“It is important to remember that a child does not have to be underweight to have an eating disorder.”
Explaining that eating disorders can occur at any weight, the former CAMHS clinical lead explained:
‘In fact, the false idea that a child needs to be underweight to have an eating disorder is harmful because it can prevent early diagnosis.
«It is important to remember that the first indicators of eating difficulties are not necessarily only behaviors related to food and eating.
“Eating difficulties can present themselves in different ways for different people.”
1. Become obsessive about food intake
Possible indicators that your child may have an eating disorder include if he or she begins obsessively counting calories or makes big changes to his or her diet.
This can include eliminating entire food groups entirely, according to Dr. Lynne, or even grouping them into “good” and “bad” categories.
Another behavioral change you may notice is that your child might start skipping meals or avoid eating around other people, Kooth’s clinical director added.
However, detecting eating disorders is not an exact science, and some conditions can often be combined with others, according to Dr. Lynne.
“Children with gastrointestinal problems, food allergies, or sensory processing difficulties may have difficulties with their relationship with food and may engage in behaviors similar to those seen in eating disorders as a way of coping.”
She said: ‘Loss of appetite is also linked to other mental health disorders, such as depression or severe anxiety.
“It may be helpful to seek support from professionals who specialize in helping people with eating difficulties, as they are best placed to carry out a thorough assessment.”
2. Exercising too much
Excessive exercise is a warning sign that a young person in your care may be developing an eating disorder, but it can be difficult to detect, the psychologist explained.
Key indicators of overexercising are continuing the activity even when you are unwell or injured, Dr. Lynne disclosed.
Explaining how to approach your child about a potential health issue, Dr. Lynne said keeping the lines of communication open is essential.
‘If you’ve been worried, trust your instinct. Whatever changes you’ve noticed, it’s always important to have an open and honest conversation about it.’
He added: “Parents should try to approach their children openly and without judgment.”
‘Be aware that your child may not have realized there is a problem, so they may resist at first.
“On the contrary, they may notice that something is wrong and feel really anxious, so knowing that you have noticed and are there to support them will probably be reassuring in itself.”
3. Obsessively check your body
According to Dr. Lynne, a telltale sign of an eating disorder is obsessive weighing or constant body monitoring.
Although weighing yourself occasionally may be normal, stepping on the scale daily can not only be a sign of a growing problem and can also affect your mood, he said.
The clinical director explained that your child’s development of a distorted view of his or her appearance may also be an early sign of an eating disorder.
This includes your child believing they are overweight, not being able to see that they have lost weight, or even believing they can visibly see the food they just ate.
However, as parents there are preventative measures that can be taken to promote healthy relationships with food and body image at home.
“Parents and primary caregivers play a crucial role in protecting their children from external factors that could lead to the development of eating disorders,” said Dr. Lynne.
‘One way to promote a healthy relationship with food, our emotions and our bodies is to create a safe, non-judgmental space where children can talk about their feelings and concerns.
“This can include conversations about food, self-perception, body image, and how they view themselves and others.”
She added, “Children learn by modeling, so parents can model healthy behaviors around eating and body image.”
“It can be helpful to encourage balanced eating habits, be aware of the language used around food, and avoid dieting behaviors or derogatory comments about their bodies.”
4. Rapid behavior changes
Signs of a developing problem with food will not only manifest in your relationship with food but also in your emotional behavior.
According to Dr. Lynne, irritability, withdrawal or fatigue are indicators that the body may be lacking nutrients.
Other signs may include that your child lacks motivation or a desire to socialize.
They may also worry too much about their appearance, avoiding having photographs taken or even mirrors and surfaces where they can see themselves reflected, the psychologist explained.
However, the former consultant clinical psychologist urged parents to teach their children to “appreciate their body”.
‘It can be helpful to teach children to appreciate their bodies and celebrate their uniqueness, while recognizing the challenges that arise from images seen on social media and other sources.
He added: “By participating in these types of discussions, children can begin to understand how to differentiate between fact and fiction and develop the ability to evaluate information and form their own opinions, especially when exposed to content that may be misleading or inappropriate.” .
5. Changes in your physical appearance
Although Dr. Lynne emphasizes that people with eating disorders do not look a particular way, changes in your child’s physical appearance may indicate an underlying problem.
According to the clinical psychologist, signs to look out for include weight loss or fluctuations, dental problems, changes in the menstrual cycle, and hair loss or thinning.
“Eating difficulties can be really worrying, but they can be treated,” Dr. Lynne said.
“We know that early intervention means the best possible outcomes and that support from friends and family is crucial to recovery.”
Dr Lynne explains that the first GP appointment can be daunting and encourages parents to offer to attend with their child, adding that even a small gesture can make a “big difference”.
She added, “In addition to providing emotional support, you likely have information about your child’s behavior that he or she doesn’t.” which can help the GP form a more complete picture of what has been happening.”
Beat, the UK eating disorders charity, has a range of supports available and also leaflets available for parents on how to prepare and cope with their first GP appointment.