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What can I do if my child or a child in school might be struggling with an eating disorder? 

Eating disorders have become a growing concern in recent years and are becoming alarmingly more common. It is estimated that 1.2 million people are currently living with an eating difficulty in the UK alone. 25% of those with an eating disorder are male.  

This can be incredibly worrying and challenging for parents whose child is demonstrating difficulties with eating. Despite the frustration and potential helplessness a parent may feel, there are many ways to support a child facing an eating difficulty. It is crucially important that families communicate with and involve their GP when supporting their own child with a potential eating disorder. 

Common Eating Disorders 

It’s important to recognise that eating disorders cover a broad spectrum, and often there are a variety of different symptoms to look out for. Arguably, the most well-known is anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia restrict their food intake as an unhealthy coping strategy or to generate a feeling of control when they have underlying difficulties. This could result in sudden weight loss. The root cause of an eating disorder may be trauma, a perfectionist streak, or life experiences. It isn’t always straightforward to spot why a child is developing difficulty with food. 

Another common eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, which can manifest as the individual purging (vomiting or taking laxatives). Binge eating, which often causes individuals to consume a large amount of food, can evoke a sense of shame and guilt.  

OFSED is a term that covers eating disorders that don’t specifically fall into the categories mentioned above. It is important to note that those experiencing an eating disorder, can often exhibit symptoms of different disorders at the same time.  

Eating disorders in themselves though, are not always about preventing weight gain. There are a range of reasons why a child or adult exhibits symptoms of an eating disorder. These could be previously experienced trauma or specific life experiences, which may trigger other mental health conditions like anxiety, depression or low self-esteem.  There has been thought that social media and its impact on teenagers has contributed to the continuous rise of eating disorders, as idealised versions of the world and how a person or individual should look are always available to compare yourself to which leads to a distorted view on how you should look. 

What to look for if you think a child in your care is having difficulties with food.

There is no blueprint of what an eating disorder should look like, as symptoms vary. It isn’t always easy to identify whether a child has developed an eating difficulty. There are, however, some things that we can consider to be red flags that indicate an unhealthy relationship with food. Here are some of them: 

  • Spending lots of time worrying about weight and body shape. 
  • Avoiding social occasions when food is involved, like attending a meal.  
  • Having an unhealthy relationship with exercise or exercising too much. 
  • Being overly strict when it comes to food intake and establishing unhealthy routines around food.  
  • Dramatically losing a lot of weight in a short space of time.  
  • Eating a large amount of food quickly.  
  • Avoiding eating around other people.  
  • Disguising weight loss with oversized clothing.  

What can I do as a parent or teacher? 

It can be difficult to know what to do when you think your child, or a child in your classroom, could potentially be dealing with an eating disorder. It’s important to remember that the recovery process takes time and is different for everyone.  It is recommended that a GP is involved when tackling an eating disorder with a child. Make sure to follow their advice, and guidance throughout the recovery process.  

If you believe, or suspect that a child in your care is experiencing an eating disorder, it is important that you follow the guidelines in place at your school and communicate transparently with your designated safeguarding lead. By cultivating a safe learning environment and creating a classroom culture that is inclusive and compassionate, teachers can make this a safe place to educate children on topics such as this, as part of the PSHE curriculum. 

Treatment will usually involve monitoring weight gain to a healthy level and engaging with talking therapies. It might be important for the team to monitor a patient’s physical health too, to enable them to overcome any complications that may have arisen.  

Recovery will be different for everybody, as treatment will be tailored to the specific symptoms and needs of the individual. For further support, Spurgeons provide counselling and parenting support for families experiencing difficulties.  If children in your care need more support contact our Fegans Child Counselling Services. We deliver much of this work through our family hubs in partnership with schools, children’s centres and GP surgeries.  

It’s not always the case that the person with an eating disorder will realise they need support. If you are concerned about a student in your care, then report your concerns to your Designated Safeguarding Lead. For further information and parental support, look at the Spurgeon’s Family Toolkit, and explore the information available there.  

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The author

Daniel Robertson is a Digital Journey Lead for Spurgeons Children's Charity. Prior to this role, he has worked as a Teacher of English in a wide variety of school settings.

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