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I Think My Child Might Be Anorexic – What Should I Do?

*trigger warning: this article contains a discussion about the eating disorder anorexia and its symptoms, which some readers may find distressing* 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you can’t cope, you can access the following services:

As a parent, or a responsible adult, all you want is for your child or the young person in your life to be happy and healthy, so when you suspect something is seriously wrong, it’s devastating. 

For parents or carers of children who have eating disorders such as anorexia, the instinct to rush in and fix it can be all but impossible to resist. 

However, when a person is in the grip of a severe mental illness like anorexia, you have to handle the situation with delicacy and patience. 

Today, we’ll look at the complex subject of anorexia, how to spot the signs of this eating disorder, and how to get your child the help they need. 

What we’ll be looking into:

  • What is anorexia and what causes it 
  • The signs of anorexia and how to spot them 
  • How to support a child with anorexia 
  • Treatment options and medical intervention 

What is anorexia?

The NHS defines anorexia as “an eating disorder and serious mental health condition. 

“People who have anorexia try to keep their weight as low as possible by not eating enough food or exercising too much, or both. 

“This can make them very ill because they start to starve. They often have a distorted image of their bodies, thinking they’re fat even when they’re underweight.” 

Some anorexic people will stop eating altogether and secretly throw food away to disguise the lack of food consumed.

Who suffers from anorexia?

Eating disorders like anorexia don’t discriminate – people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds can develop them. 

However, studies show that the average age of onset for anorexia is 16-17 years old and that it has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder in adolescents. 

NHS statistics show that the majority of people hospitalised for eating disorders were girls under the age of 25. 

Of the estimated 1.25 million people in the UK who have an eating disorder, 25% are male. 

Did you know?

There are a number of different eating disorders that someone can be diagnosed with in order for healthcare professionals to choose the right kind of treatment for someone.

Here are some other types of eating disorders:

  • Binge eating disorder
  • Bulimia Nervose
  • Orthorexia
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
  • Pica
  • Rumination disorder

You can read more about these different types of disorders on the Beat website.

What causes anorexia?

It’s important to know that anorexia is a mental illness, and anorexic people are not choosing to have an eating disorder. 

Instead, disordered eating is usually a response to difficult emotions or situations where the person feels out of control. 

Anorexia can be triggered by family problems, bullying at school, feeling imperfect or not good enough, experiences of abuse or several other circumstances.

Your young person may not identify with any of the specific triggers mentioned and could still be suffering from disordered eating.

What the experts say:

The Beat Eating Disorders charity explains that the psychology behind disordered eating is very complex. 

They write, “It’s important to remember that eating disorders are not all about food itself, but about feelings.  

“The way the person treats food may make them feel more able to cope or feel in control, though they might not be aware of the purpose this behaviour is serving.  

“An eating disorder is never the fault of the person experiencing it, and anyone who has an eating disorder deserves fast, compassionate support to help them get better. 

What are the signs that my child has anorexia?

You may already be aware of some of the more noticeable signs of anorexia, such as dramatic weight loss, obsession with calorie counting and fine hair on the face and arms (lanugo). 

What can be hard for parents is that not all the physical and behavioural signs of anorexia will present at the same time. 

Harder still is the fact that many anorexic people will go to great lengths to cover up the signs they are ill. 

What the experts say:

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) in the US have compiled an overview of the signs and symptoms that a person with anorexia might exhibit. You can find it here. 

They write: “The chance for recovery increases the earlier an eating disorder is detected. Therefore, it is important to be aware of some of the warning signs of an eating disorder.  

“An individual with anorexia generally won’t have all of these signs and symptoms at once, and warning signs and symptoms vary across eating disorders, so this isn’t intended as a checklist.  

“Rather, it is intended as a general overview of the types of behaviours that may indicate an eating disorder.” 

What should I do if I think my child has anorexia?

It’s normal to feel panicked, powerless and desperate to help if you think your child has anorexia. 

Be careful not to destroy the channels of communication between you by going in hard and fast and desperate to resolve the issue quickly. 

However if there is a medical emergency and your child needs urgent treatment, take them to the hospital straight away. 

What the experts say:

Mental health charity Mind is clear that you must first let your child know you are there for them. 

They write: “Make sure the person knows you’re here to listen and can help them find support. This is one of the most important things you can do. Let them know they can talk to you when they’re ready. 

“Try not to get angry or frustrated. They might already feel guilty about how their behaviour is affecting you. Try to be as understanding and patient as you can. 

“Don’t make assumptions. Try not to interpret what their eating problem means without listening to them. This could add to their feelings of helplessness. It could also make them less able to share their difficult emotions and seek support.” 

How to approach talking to your child about their eating disorder

In such a sensitive and high-stakes situation, you might be scared to get things wrong. 

However, open-hearted and non-judgemental communication will help. 

What the experts say:

Kari Health Psychotherapist, Chloe Pollock advises: “It can be scary to raise the topic at all, but beginning a dialogue between you and your child can allow them to start healing. 

“Try to communicate openly and honestly but avoid judgemental language or tone of voice. 

“It may be difficult to accept, but it can be a long process for your child to arrive at a decision to seek support. 

“In the meantime, gently explore your child’s thoughts and feelings together, and do your research so you have some resources on hand should your child want to know more.” 

What help can medical professionals give my child with anorexia?

Every case is different, but treatment typically involves talking therapies and working with a dietician to provide nutritional and eating support. 

The first step is to visit the GP and get a referral to an eating disorders specialist. 

Early intervention can really help the person to recover, be assured that a full recovery is also possible for people who’ve had an eating disorder for longer. 

Your role at the start of the treatment journey is to provide support, help your child express their feelings and needs, and to advocate for them when required. 

What the experts say:

Beat Eating Disorders underline the importance of talking therapies, used in conjunction with a dietician’s nutritional and feeding support. 

They write, “Remember, it’s important to address the thoughts and feelings causing an eating disorder, not just the behaviour.  

“There are many different therapies that can do this, and no single therapy is the best choice in all cases. Depending on how young they are, you may have a lot of say over their treatment, so remember that if your child isn’t responding well to one form of treatment, they may respond better to another.” 

Can my child be forced into medical treatment for anorexia?

There are circumstances in which the decision for medical intervention is taken by doctors instead of the anorexic person. 

If your child becomes severely underweight and starts to experience dangerous health complications, the medical team may intervene. 

What the experts say:

The NHS website explains: “If your friend or relative has lost an extreme amount of weight, they may be in danger of starving themselves and developing serious complications.  

“They may not be able to think clearly because of the lack of food and may have to be forced into life-saving treatment. 

“In these circumstances, their doctor may decide to admit them to hospital for specialist treatment. This can only be done after the doctor has consulted with colleagues and they all agree with the doctor’s decision.  

“This is called being sectioned and is done under the rules of the Mental Health Act.” 

Ways to practically support your child at home as they recover

The pathways to recovery will depend on the individual child, but there are things you can do to make it easier. 

Anorexic people often suffer from low self-esteem, so try to boost your child’s confidence and feelings of worth. 

Try not to comment about how they look or the food they eat. No matter how supportive those comments are, they can be twisted through the lens of the eating disorder and fuel distorted narratives. 

Don’t force food on your child or get upset with them at mealtimes – just try to make those moments that involve food as stress-free as possible. 

What the experts say:

Mental health platform Healthguide.org suggests a different approach to mealtimes as a family. 

They write: “Try to eat together as a family as often as possible. Even if your child isn’t willing to eat the food you’ve prepared, encourage them to join you at the table.  

“Use this time together to enjoy each other’s company, rather than talking about problems. Meals are also a good opportunity to show your child that food is something to be enjoyed rather than feared.” 

The journey to recovery

Although you may feel hopeless at times, there is hope for a full recovery from anorexia. 

Give yourself the space to express your thoughts and fears to somebody other than your child and practice self-care so you can remain strong. 

The journey towards recovery is often not linear and may involve many ups and downs. 

An understanding and acceptance of this truth can help you cope and find the resilience to support your child in their darkest hour. 

Have confidence you can get through this together. 

Remember,

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you can’t cope, you can access the following services:

This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare professionals. We do have an in-house team of subject matter experts, who we consult to produce our content, but we would always advise following the advice of your healthcare team as a first step. They are there to help you, and will have your best interests in mind.

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