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An introduction to eating disorders in children and young people

Sarah Ward

Types of eating disorders

Eating disorders come in many shapes and sizes, but they can be separated into three main categories:

  1. Restrictive (Anorexia nervosa)
  2. Binge eating
  3. Binge eating and purging (Bulimia nervosa)

Adolescents can have a mixture of all 3 types, which could include moving between types. In society other categories have started to emerge within males around developing huge muscles or going to the other extreme to be really skinny and androgynous. Eating disorders affect more than just how we look, they also affect our mental health and cognitive abilities.

Mental health and cognitive abilities

Psychological effects last for longer than the period of starvation which is one of the many reasons why early intervention is key. The following are common within individuals with eating disorders:

  • Distortion of body image (body dysmorphic disorder)
  • Reduction in cognition and mental capacitiesDelusions
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Shame
  • Unable to plan and organise
  • Low attention and concentration
  • Irritable
  • Self-harm
  • Obsessional

Suicide is the most common cause of death among individuals with eating disorders. Spotting the signs early can prevent an eating disorder escalating.

Spotting the signs early can prevent an eating disorder escalating.
Spotting the signs early can prevent an eating disorder escalating.

Red flags

Everyone is an individual, which means that this list is for guidance and not medical proof for a diagnosis. A combination of the following signs could indicate an eating disorder:

  • Bad teeth – dentist should notice on a check up
  • Fainting
  • Change in behaviour
  • Cutting food into tiny pieces
  • Concealing body
  • Excuses about eating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Secrecy
  • Joins lunchtime clubs to avoid eating
  • Stealing food
  • Disappearing following food

If you spot any of these red flags and do not feel comfortable having the conversation about eating disorders then you can ask someone you both trust to have the conversation on your behalf, including your GP. Knowing that people are officially observing behaviour can cause the reduction or disappearance of an emerging eating disorder. This support can make a world of difference.

Supporting someone with an eating disorder

Family members, teaching staff and friends are key in the early identification of a problem. Communication and observation can make more difference than you realise. It is important to tackle problematic thoughts before the thought of eating becomes too disgusting and serious intervention is needed.

Guide the child or young person, keep them safe and be realistic to help.

Prevention is better than cure

Eating disorders evolve and worsen over time and create changes in thinking patterns which become harder to reverse. For prevention we recommend that you act as a role model for appropriate eating habits and body beliefs. If you would like to lose some weight, then don’t let it become an obsession, and try to avoid negative body comments around the child or young person.

Be supportive

By offering supportive statements (“I can see that this is hard for you, let’s get through this) rather than praise (“well done for eating that”) you will help someone with an eating disorder. Guide the child or young person, keep them safe and be realistic to help.

Be open and honest

Talking about eating disorders or mental health will not make the problem worse, and it could open up an opportunity for the individual to talk to you about what’s happening. If you ask any questions then please, be sensitive and non-judgemental. More than anything, communication will help to identify potential problems – maybe they don’t have an eating disorder, but they’re self-harming.


There are ways to measure and increase resilience. If you don’t feel comfortable supporting with this then find somewhere local who can, there’s no shame in that.

Support if you have an eating disorder

If you have an eating disorder then there are many places where you can find support:

  • Friends
  • Family members
  • School staff
  • Doctor
  • GP
  • Dietitian
  • HSR Psychology
  • SEED – Eating disorder support service
  • B-eat – Eating disorder charity

Talk to someone you trust to help. If you don’t feel as though you can trust anyone then please see your GP as they can offer support and guidance.

Next steps...

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About the author

Sarah Ward

I am passionate about helping students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) achieve their true potential through working with education settings, parents and carers. My experience covers the 0-25 age range, including early years. I have experience designing and delivering interventions in both education and home settings. Through working abroad and with students who have English as an additional language (EAL), I fully understand how language and culture can influence learning. Integrating my specialist knowledge and experience enables me to help children and young people to be happy, safe and ready for life’s challenges alongside their families and education settings. You can view my professional experience and work history at this link.

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