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Eating Disorders in Children: Identifying Common Signs and Symptoms

An estimated 9% of the U.S. population will struggle with an eating disorder in their lifetime, with children and adolescents becoming increasingly vulnerable often due to outside influences like social media.

If you’re a parent, we understand how upsetting and scary it can feel to notice your child exhibiting signs of disordered eating. However, understanding the different types of eating disorders and how they commonly present themselves in children and adolescents may help you gain clarity as to whether or not you should be worried and how to best intervene when necessary.

Early intervention is key to preventing the development of severe and long-lasting eating disorders. Here’s everything you should know about identifying common warning signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children.

Unsure if it’s an eating disorder? Take our eating disorder screener to learn more about how you or a loved one may be struggling with a negative relationship with food.

Common Types of Eating Disorders in Children

Eating disorders are complex conditions often characterized by unhealthy eating habits and preoccupations with food, weight, and body image – but they don’t all look the same. Several types of eating disorders can affect young children and teens, the most common including:

  • Anorexia Nervosa/Atypical Anorexia: Individuals engage in severe food restriction due to an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image, often leading to malnutrition and significant, unhealthy weight loss.
  • Bulimia Nervosa: Individuals engage in episodes of binge eating (eating large amounts of food at once) followed by compensatory behaviors such as vomiting, excessive exercise, or fasting to prevent weight gain.
  • Binge Eating Disorder (BED): Individuals eat large amounts of food over a short period while feeling out of control, typically in secret or hidden from others, which tends to result in feelings of guilt or embarrassment.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Individuals refuse or avoid certain foods or food groups based on texture, color, smell, or temperature, often leading to severe nutritional deficiencies.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Children

Eating disorders can develop at any age, but their onset often tends to occur in adolescence and young adulthood. Since symptoms often worsen as these disorders progress, early intervention is critical to helping your child regain a healthy relationship with food.

Importantly, eating disorder symptoms can widely vary from person to person and may also depend on the specific diagnosis. If you’ve noticed any combination of the following behavioral, physical, or psychological signs in your child, it may be a sign that they are struggling with an eating disorder.

Behavioral Eating Disorder Signs

  • Significant, noticeable weight loss or failure to gain weight as expected for their age and height
  • Obsession or fixation with food, dieting, and calories with an intense focus on what they eat and avoidance of certain food groups
  • Sudden or drastic changes in eating patterns, such as skipping meals, avoiding specific foods, or adopting rigid eating rituals
  • Engaging in compulsive or excessive exercise, even under unfavorable conditions, for the purpose of burning calories or preventing weight gain
  • Social isolation or avoidance of social activities and gatherings, especially those involving food
  • Unusual behaviors during mealtimes such as cutting food into tiny pieces or only using certain utensils
  • Engaging in purging behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or abusing laxatives
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after meals (indicative of purging)
  • Hiding or hoarding food away from others to be eaten in private
  • Dressing in excess layers of clothing

Physical Eating Disorder Signs

  • Fatigue and weakness due to inadequate nutrition and calorie intake
  • Episodes of dizziness or feeling faint resulting from nutritional deficiencies
  • For children who have reached puberty, irregular or absent menstrual cycles
  • Sensitive or damaged teeth, often due to purging behaviors
  • Nausea, cramping, stomach aches, or bloating
  • Lack of energy and constant exhaustion
  • Fine hair growth on the body (lanugo)
  • Noticeable hair thinning or hair loss
  • Brittle nails and/or blue nail beds
  • Feeling excessively cold
  • Dry, pale skin

Psychological Eating Disorder Signs

  • An intense and disproportionate focus on body shape, size, or perceived flaws
  • Constant dissatisfaction with one’s body and overall appearance
  • Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy, often tied to body weight and shape
  • Preoccupation with other people’s perceptions of their body or appearance
  • Frequent mood changes, irritability, or emotional instability
  • Increased levels of anxiety or depressive symptoms, especially related to body weight and food
  • A strong desire for perfection, driven by the belief that achieving a certain body weight or appearance will lead to happiness and acceptance
  • Aversion to certain food tastes, smells, or textures

What to Do if You Think Your Child Has an Eating Disorder

As we mentioned before, early intervention is key to preventing a potential eating disorder from progressing any further and becoming more dangerous. If you believe your child is struggling with signs of disordered eating, it’s essential to seek professional help to prevent their condition from worsening.

Our team treats patients aged 10 and up with all types of eating disorders, as well as co-occurring conditions, to help them achieve and maintain lasting recovery. Learn more about how VERY can help you or a loved one heal their relationship with food.

On top of reaching out for professional help, you may also find these tips useful:

  • Offer open conversation with your child free from any judgment, and if they don’t want to open up, try encouraging them to talk to another trusted member of their support system
  • Eliminate any talk about food, dieting, or body image, as this can be triggering for someone with an eating disorder
  • Research and learn about eating disorders on your own to help you better understand what your child is going through

Importance of Early Intervention For Lasting Recovery

With eating disorders often first presenting in childhood and young adulthood, it can be scary if you notice your child exhibiting warning signs. If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms in your child, we encourage you to seek professional help to get your family the support you need to achieve and maintain a lasting recovery.

Schedule a free consultation to learn more about how VERY’s virtual eating disorder treatment team can help.