Regulating your eating is often about gaining a sense of control, and they often thrive on secrecy, shame and stigma. Added to that, younger children may not have the vocabulary to express their worries, or may not know that their behaviour around food is problematic. The warning signs can be subtle and our assumptions about the condition unhelpful – for instance, it’s generally assumed that this is something developed in adolescent girls.
Increasingly, boys are being diagnosed too. And the damage that can be inflicted on a body that’s still growing is terrifying. The charity Starving Brains has alarming evidence proving that disturbing gut health can have devastating consequences on children’s mental health.
Some SEN children can have issues around eating. Getting used to different foods and textures is ‘one of the tasks of developmental learning,’ says Dr Dasha Nicholls, Clinical Reader in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Imperial College in our film Understanding Eating Disorders. The way kids interact with food can be about control and independence, frustration and fear. The difference between ‘regular’ fussy eating and a disorder is when the physical and emotional health of the child is at risk.
The proportion of children and young people with possible eating problems increased between 2017 and 2021, from 6.7% to 13.0% in 11 to 16 year olds.
As with other mental health challenges, early diagnosis and intervention can make a huge difference. The NHS acknowledges this, stating that, ‘It is vital that children and young people with eating disorders and their families and carers can access effective help quickly. Offering evidence-based, high-quality care and support as soon as possible can improve recovery rates, lead to fewer relapses and reduce the need for inpatient admissions.’
Contrary to what many believe, weight loss won’t be the first sign of a problem – in fact that comes much later. The initial signs are behavioural. Watch out for rule making around food and that most invidious of symptoms – secrecy. ‘Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, and accessing specialist help as soon as possible leads to the best chances of making a full recovery,’ says Tom Quinn, Director of External Affairs at Beat Eating Disorders, a charity which provides immediate help.
Of course, the importance of early intervention can’t be overstated – the longer the issue is untreated, the harder it is to reverse. That’s why we’re supporting Eating Disorders Awareness Week (#EDAW2022).
NHS support ideas for parents
Advice from Young Minds
The Royal College of Psychiatrist’s overview