What to Do If You're Concerned About Your Child's Eating

What to Do If You're Concerned About Your Child's Eating

How to help your child if you're concerned about his or her eating behaviors

Maybe you’ve noticed your child has become fixated on food: counting calories, extreme dieting, defining his self-worth by what he eats or how he looks. Maybe she has lost weight without explanation. Or perhaps you are concerned that your child is eating in secret or overdoing it with exercise. Eating disorder symptoms vary.

Approach your child with your concerns even though it can feel daunting. You can trust your instinct if what you’ve noticed is unusual or concerning to you. Remember, whatever is happening is no more your fault than if your child developed an ear infection. And if your child is indeed suffering from an eating disorder, your help will be vital to his well-being.

An eating disorder takes control of all aspects of a child’s life, especially her ability to seek help. It is even common for an individual suffering from an eating disorder to deny its existence. For this reason, clearly express your concern to your child and reassure him that you will find him the help he needs. It might feel like you are going against your child’s wishes, but you are actually allying with her against the eating disorder and the suffering that comes with it.

You might be wondering how this happened. The answer, though frustrating, is that we don’t yet know the biology of how eating disorders develop. Researchers at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders are trying to answer this question. Rather than getting distracted by asking what you could have done differently, focus instead on getting your child the help he might need.

Act quickly. An eating disorder is a serious illness with psychological consequences and can lead to medical complications. Eating disorders typically do not go away on their own and most often require professional help. In fact, early detection and intervention are associated with a better long-term prognosis.

Contact your child’s pediatrician for a referral to an eating disorder specialist. When you speak to the specialist, ask what type of therapy he or she provides. Family-based therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy have been demonstrated to be effective forms of treatment for eating disorders. How can you tell if the treatment is effective? Watch for a reduction in your child’s symptoms, such as steady improvement in weight in anorexia nervosa, reduced frequency of binge eating and/or purging in bulimia, and more overall flexibility in eating and exercise behaviors.

Resources for individuals and families affected by eating disorders:

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