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A guide for parents Eating problems

If you're worried your child has an eating disorder, or an unhealthy relationship with food, here is our advice and information on where you can get help.

Our relationship with food can change - and that's okay

Children’s attitudes to eating are affected by a range of factors including the attitudes and behaviours of parents and peers towards food, nutrition and body image, trauma, stress, and bullying. Appetites may change at different ages and this is normal; some eat a lot or eat anything, others are more particular. Younger children often refuse to eat certain foods and teenagers may try 'fad diets'. Most of us have tried out different eating habits or diets at some time in our lives, whether to lose or put on weight or to improve our health, and this is not necessarily a cause for concern.

Problems can start to emerge when a child or young person feels under pressure. They may lose their appetite; or they may turn to food for comfort and eat even when they are not hungry; their worries about food may be related to their size or body shape, or can be more about their emotions and self-esteem.

When does it becomes a problem?

Young people’s problems with food can begin as a coping strategy for times when they are bored, anxious, angry, lonely, ashamed or sad. Food becomes a problem when it is used to help cope with painful situations or feelings, or to relieve stress, perhaps without even realising it. Children can fear getting fat and may perceive their body shape differently than those around them. It is useful to know that an eating problem is usually symptomatic and suggests there is an underlying problem that needs to be identified, understood and treated.

Young people with eating disorders often consider them to be a solution rather than a problem, making identification and treatment more difficult. They tend to have extreme concerns and sense of self-worth in terms of body shape and weight. If you're worried about your child there are things you can do to help. 

How can I help my child?

  • Be aware that they may deny they have a problem

    Be aware that many young people may deny they have a problem. They may try to keep it a secret, and find it difficult to accept they need help.

  • Go to see your GP

    Make notes about your main concerns ahead of the appointment. The GP will make an assessment and if they think your child needs specialist help, they should be able to refer you to a mental health professional specialising in this area.

  • There is different treatment options

    There are many different types of treatment, depending on the nature of the eating disorder and the symptoms. Treatment can includes dietary control as well as individual and family therapy aimed at resolving underlying emotional problems.

  • Hospital admission can be necessary

    If the young person has lost a great deal of weight, or other help seems not to work, they may need to spend some time in hospital or a special unit, where treatment can be more closely monitored.

  • Get the support family and friends

    Ask family and friends to help support a young person with an eating disorder, particularly by talking to them about their feelings and everyday problems.

  • They may find it easier to talk to a teacher

    Young people unwilling to accept help from their parents may find it easier to talk to a teacher at school. 

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Download our full Parents Helpline guide to eating problems

For more information and advice, you can download our full Parents Helpline guide. The guide includes:

  • information about different eating disorders, including their symptoms
  • advice on how you can support your child with an eating disorder
  • a list of helplines and services you can use
Download our guide to eating problems

Where to get help

Useful helplines and websites: