What Is An Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental illness that affects around 1.25 million people in the UK and is characterised by disordered eating behaviour. People with eating disorders use abnormal eating behaviour as a coping mechanism to help to deal with difficult situations or feelings.

A person showing signs of an eating disorder may have behaviours that can include:

  • Limiting the amount of food eaten
  • Eating very large quantities of food at once
  • Getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (e.g. making themselves sick, misusing laxatives, fasting, or excessive exercise)
  • A combination of these behaviours

It can be important to recognise that eating disorders are not always about the food itself, but more about feelings. The way the person behaves around food may make them feel more able to cope, feel in control, even if for a brief moment, and they may not be aware of the purpose this behaviour is serving.

Children And Adolescents

While eating disorders can affect a person at any age, we know that young people are at particular risk, because most eating disorders develop during adolescents, and there are even cases of eating disorders developing in children as young as 6. (Priory group- UK eating disorder statistics)

We also know that getting help as soon as possible is vital, as it gives a child or adolescent the best chance of recovery.

Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or someone who sees children regularly there are some signs to look out for which may indicate that there is a problem.

Signs that there may be cause of concern and the need to go to the GP may include:

  • Eating in secret or hiding food
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Social isolation or avoiding socialising when food is involved
  • Avoiding eating around others
  • Food phobias
  • Having very strict habits or routines around food
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tiredness
  • Irritability
  • Low confidence and self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive and/or rigid behaviour
  • Perfectionism, including setting unreasonably high personal standards and increased concern about making errors
  • Excessive neatness
  • Decreasing handwriting size
  • Self-harm
  • Changes to weight – either gaining or losing weight, or experiencing fluctuating weight

What Can You Do?

If you see signs of an eating disorder in your child or teen, you will need to become an advocate for your young person, to aim to get the support and treatment that they need as soon as possible.

The first thing you should do is contact your GP and they can make a referral to a specialist team/service or you can self-refer your young person as well.

With the right support and treatment, recovery is possible. Beat Eating Disorders ambassador, Dave, highlights the important role that GPs can play in supporting a person with an eating disorder:

“I developed anorexia when I was 17, but I was lucky enough to have great GPs who gave me the time and space to speak about my mental health. They’d say, “you wouldn’t expect your laptop to work if you didn’t charge it; how can you expect your brain to work if you don’t feed it?” And it stuck with me. My GPs helped me reframe my recovery and see it as something empowering.” (Dave, Beat Ambassador) 

Additionally, do not underestimate the importance of your role as the parent to love and support your young person by following these top tips.

  • Plan to talk to your child about how they are feeling and to do that regularly. Sometimes your child may become moody, withdrawn or be difficult to talk to, but talking to them about their condition is needed for their recovery, so keep trying. It may be difficult for them to talk about their feelings, and they may even come across as quite angry. Remember to be patient and listen to what they are trying to say.
  • Keep calm and prepare what you would like to say. Remember do not blame or judge them, just try to focus on their feelings and validating those.
  • Avoid talking about how they look, even if it feels like a compliment to you, focusing on appearance can send the wrong message. If they say, “I look…” you may comment something like, “I can remember a time when I criticised how I looked too.” And then move on.
  • Use sentences starting with “I”, for example, “I’ve been feeling worried because you don’t seem happy.” Avoid sentences that start with “You”.
  • Avoid talking about anyone else’s diets or weight issues in front of or within earshot of your child.
  • Don’t worry if they don’t open up straight away but do come back to topics of their feelings often, to show you are ready to listen when they do decide to open up.
  • Remember that this is a mental illness, and that they may be behaving in a secretive manner, so it’s ok to ask about things but not to take it personally.
  • Try not to assume or judge anything, just stick to those “I” statements, like, “I’ve been concerned about you, you don’t seem your usual self. Is there anything I can help with?”

The brain and control

There is a theory that the brain needs to feel in control, even if for brief periods of time, in order to feel safe. There can be times in life when it feels like we have no control, and those times can be stressful. When someone feels stressed, their ‘stress bucket’ begins to overflow and one coping mechanism can be to gain control of something – and for some children, one of those things is food.

When a child restricts food intake or binge eats, the body sends signals to the brain:

  • In the case of restricting food, the signal may be one of pain, in the stomach. The pain signal, for a brief moment, may be giving the child a tiny release of pain soothing neurotransmitters in the brain, which may be motivating the child to repeat the process.
  • In the case of binge eating, again the brain gets a rush of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, and as the food fires up the dopamine receptors, a brief moment of relief from stress occurs. If eating one donut caused that, the brain will be a very active advocate for eating 5 donuts to get the same feeling again.
  • Being undernourished will affect the brain in relation to anxiety and stress as the flight/flight mode will be more active due to the potential risk to survival.  This will mean people who are suffering the effects of malnutrition will spend more time in their primitive mind (which encourages anxiety, anger/stress and depressive moods), encouraging them more to engage in those negative behaviours and irrational thought processes.

These behaviours will often be repeated by this primitive part of the brain which reverts back to learned behaviour and habits in times of stress or overwhelm (regardless of whether they are good for us or not!).

What We Do

Here at the Youth Fairy, we work in a solution focused way to help young people gain more control of their emotions and feelings, to better understand the brain and why they struggle in the ways they do, and to support them in feeling happier, calmer and more in control of their feelings and behaviours.

When there is initial concern about or a diagnosis of an eating disorder, there are a number of ways we can help to address the underlying emotional needs which may be affecting your child and exasperating the eating disorder:

  • Offering emotional support in the interim, whilst they wait for the GP/referral process to start if there is a wait.
  • Compliment their ongoing primary care/and medical intervention (with their care team’s permission) – working to reduce anxiety, stress and helping them to develop a greater sense of control in their personal lives. We can support them to embrace coping skills which don’t cause harm and explain the control theory in child friendly terms.
  • We can also work alongside the team that is supporting your child by communicating with them, discussing common goals and how we can compliment the different approaches that are being used with your child.

Looking after YOU too

It is important to look after yourself, as a parent, if you are supporting your child with an easting disorder as it may well be taking it’s emotional toll on you. We also offer Solution Focused Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy to parents, supporting them to cope better as they navigate the emotional challenges and struggles they may be facing too.

The following organisations offer advice online:

Support someone else – Beat (beateatingdisorders.org.uk)

Beat Adult helpline: 0808 801 0677 or youth helpline on 0808 801 0711.

Family and friends | Anorexia & Bulimia Care (anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk)

Bulimia, anorexia help and advice | Family Lives

Eating Disorders & Problems | Guide For Parents | YoungMinds