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Do you think your child or teen might have an eating disorder?

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Eating Disorders

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What is an eating disorder?
What causes an eating disorder?
Types of eating disorders
How do I know if my child has an eating disorder?
What problems develop from an eating disorder?
Will my child grow out of it?
What has happened to my child's personality?
What should we do if we think our child has an eating disorder?
How to help
How not to help
Where to find help
More information

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are serious problems with eating, which affect every part of a person’s life, including thoughts, feelings, body and relationships. Eating disorders are very serious, and potentially fatal.

It may start off with a diet, where children or youth try something to feel better about themselves. From there, however, it can sometimes escalate into a dangerous, life threatening eating disorder.

On the outside

you may notice signs in your child or teen like:

  • Not eating
  • Binge-eating
  • Vomiting (throwing up)
  • Being obsessed with how her body looks

On the inside

 your child or teen may be overwhelmed by feeling:

  • Self hate
  • Worthless
  • Not good enough

It is very hard for children and youth to stop eating disorder behaviours, once they become a habit. The disorder robs youth of their judgment and they become obsessed with food. Not eating enough
(or starving) can lead to mood problems like:

  • Deep sadness
  • Irritability
  • Anger

Even with these terrible feelings, youth feel they must keep on with eating disorder behaviours. They hope that eventually, they will feel better on the inside.

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What causes Eating Disorders?

While up to 9 out of 10 of teenage girls and many teenage boys will try to diet, only a few will go on to develop an eating disorder. Most of the time, a few things come together to lead to an eating disorder. Possible causes include:

  • Being frightened by body changes during puberty
  • Social pressure to look and act a certain way
  • Family history of an eating disorder
  • Personality traits like as perfectionism and low self-esteem
  • Cultural influences on the ‘ideal’ of a thin body

At one time, families were blamed for causing eating disorders. Families don’t cause eating disorders. All families have ups and downs. And while family problems can be stressful for children, youth and parents, it is unlikely that one situation caused the eating disorder. In fact, families are an important part of the solution. Families play a major role in supporting and helping children and youth to recover from an eating disorder.

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Main types of Eating Disorders

Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Affects about 1 out of every 100 teenage girls (but children and boys can have it too)
  • Happens when youth cut down on eating so much that they lose a lot of weight (or for children when they stop growing)
  • Often involves excessive exercise may cause youth to:
    • Become more focused or obsessed with school work
    • Be more irritable
    • Isolate themselves from friends and family.
    • Can sometimes evolve to bulimia nervosa over time. But since this pattern takes years to develop, it is more often seen in adults

Bulimia nervosa:

  • Involves cycles of binge-eating and purging. A cycle usually starts when youth go on a diet and cut their food intake.Their bodies respond by driving them to eat a lot of food in one single sitting (binge eating). This often leaves youth feeling very ashamed and anxious.
  • They feel the need to ‘purge’ (make up for eating so much) by:
    • Vomiting
    • Exercising
    • Skipping meals
    • Using laxatives or diuretic pills (medicines to cause more bowel movements or pass more urine)
  • Affects up to 4 out of every 100 teenage girls (but can also affect teenage boys)
  • May cause youth to become very irritable and distant
  • May not cause any real weight loss
  • Usually develops later than anorexia nervosa

Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

  • Refers to binge eating, without ‘purging’ afterwards (for example by vomiting or skipping meals)
  • Binges are often triggered by difficult feelings that the child or teen is unable to handle
  • During a binge, people describe feeling ‘out of control’
  • People with BED are often overweight or obese.

Eating Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified)
This term is used when someone has serious problems with eating, but doesn’t fit the pattern for other eating disorders. Children and youth often get this diagnosis.

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How do I know if my child or teen has an eating disorder?

Children and teens developing eating disorders may:

  • Lose weight
  • Be afraid of gaining weight
  • Go on a diet
  • Be more picky about eating, and eat only “healthy foods”
  • Hide food in napkins, or cut food into tiny pieces
  • Always go to the bathroom right after eating
  • Visit ‘pro’ anorexia or eating disorder websites
  • You may also notice large amounts of food missing.

The eating disorder may be more serious if your child or teen:

  • Loses a lot of weight
  • Fasts and skips meals on a regular basis
  • Refuses to eat with family and friends
  • Skips 2 menstrual periods (in girls)
  • Binge eats
  • Purges (for example, vomits)
  • Uses diet pills or laxatives
  • Exercises because he feels he has to and not because he wants to
  • Refuses to eat non diet foods
  • Won’t let others prepare food
  • Is extreme about counting calories
  • Weighs and measures food amounts
  • Is not growing taller (at a time when she should be growing)

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What problems can an Eating Disorder cause?

Eating disorders can cause problems like:

  • Cold intolerance (the person feels cold all of the time)
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of periods (in girls)
  • Osteoporosis (extreme thinning of the bones), broken bones 
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow heart rate
  • Smaller heart size
  • Heart arrhythmias (irregular heart beat)
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Stunted growth
  • Dehydration (not enough body fluids)
  • Breakdown of tooth enamel

And eating disorders can cause psychological problems like: 

  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Irritability or severe mood swings
  • Perfectionism (like spending excessive time on school work)
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness and depression
  • Difficulty sleeping

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Will my child just grow out of this?

Eating disorders rarely go away without treatment. Once a diagnosis is made, your child or teen will need you and a team of professionals to overcome this illness. This is long and hard work.

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What has happened to my child’s personality?

How did my child go from being so sensitive to being dishonest, angry and secretive? You may have noticed many changes in your child’s personality. These are the effects of starvation and the eating disorder itself. But under these behaviours, your child is probably very upset about how he is acting and he’s not able to help himself.

What should we do if we think our child or teen has an eating disorder?

Start by taking your child or teen to a doctor (like your family doctor or pediatrician).

Your doctor may suggest more specialized mental health services. She can also help to link with psychologists or psychiatrists.

Learn as much as you can about eating disorders. These are challenging illnesses that can cause a lot of stress at home. Children and youth can’t help the way they are acting, and they can’t recover from eating disorders on their own. They need the support of their families as well as mental health professionals.

Treatments for eating disorders

Eating disorders are complicated. It often takes a team of professionals working together to treat an eating disorder. Team members may include:·

  • You: from eating disorders, just as they would if they were struggling with diabetes or cancer. Family members are an essential part of the team. Children and youth need family support to recover
  • Physicians (family doctors, pediatricians or psychiatrists)
  • Therapists (psychologists, social workers and nurses)
  • Dieticians

Typical Treatments:

Individual counselling (therapy) helps children and youth learn more about eating disorders, and think about some of the difficult feelings that lie underneath. They will work on improving their self-esteem and developing new coping strategies. Therapy or counselling also helps a child or teen to become motivated over time to recover from an eating disorder.

Family therapy focuses on education about eating disorders, and helps parents learn ways to support their child’s recovery. Once the eating disorder behaviours have improved, family work may also focus on reducing any other stress in the family, and on teen issues in general.

Medications can be used to help reduce binge-eating and purging in bulimia nervosa. There are no medications proven to treat anorexia nervosa. Medications can be used to treat overwhelming anxiety and depression, or when a patient is very stuck and not getting better with other supports.

Hospitalization (or inpatient therapy) may be needed if a child or teen is medically unwell, and needs intensive care andmonitoring. Staying in hospital can also help when a child or teen is not getting better at home even with support from family and professionals.

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Helping your child or teen with an eating disorder

  • Get help and support right away, even if your child is refusing any help or support.Show you care. Let your child know that you are concerned, and you are going to get them help.

  • Listen. Tell your child that you want to hear what he has to say, and want to know how he is feeling inside.

  • Try to understand your child’s feelings. Your child is feeling awful about herself and is overwhelmed by self-criticism. Adding extra blame, criticism or guilt only adds to your child’s stress, and can make the eating disorder stronger.

  • Deal with your own issues. If you want to help your child, make sure you deal with your own eating disorder or body image issues. Speak to your family physician or see a mental health professional. It’s a lot harder to help someone else if you’re struggling yourself.

What doesn't help

  • Wasting your energy
    • Don’t waste energy blaming your child. Once an eating disorder takes over, your child is no longer in control of what he’s doing. Underneath, your child is just as upset about this as you are. 
    • Don’t waste energy blaming yourself. Eating disorders happen to the loveliest of children, in the most wonderful of families. If there is a problem that you feel might be affecting your child’s mental health, then work on this issue, or discuss it in treatment.
    • Don’t spend endless time trying to figure out “why this happened”. There does not have to be an underlying problem or secret at the root. Instead, devote your energy to getting your child help and being a support.
  • Not having all the facts
    •  Some people think an eating disorder is a form of slow suicide. Quite the opposite. An eating disorder is your child’s way of trying to feel better. Your child’s refusal to eat is not “bad behaviour”. Your child is stuck in a pattern of doing what she thinks will make things better. And remember, starvation dramatically alters a person’s mood and behaviour.
  • Comments about weight and appearance
    • Don’t make comments or talk about weight or appearance in front of your child. Even giving compliments can be a problem because they emphasize the importance of appearance and weight. And we need to make appearance and weight less important for children and youth with eating disorders.

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Where to find help

Eastern Ontario

  • In a crisis? Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line for Eastern Ontario, 613-260-2360 or toll-free, 1-877-377-7775
  • Looking for mental health help? eMentalHealth is a bilingual directory of mental health services and resources for Ottawa, Eastern Ontario and Canada.

Ottawa and Eastern Ontario

Support and Advocacy Groups

Hopewell Eating Disorders Support Centre is a charitable organization. It provides support and information to those with eating disorders and their families. Hopewell also offers an online resource directory of local Ottawa resources. Tel: 613-241-3428

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More Information:

Useful Websites


For a list of recommended books on this topic click here to visit the Eating Disorder section of the Kaitlyn Atkinson Family Resource Library.

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