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So how can you tell if a child is hiding an eating disorder? Here are some possible signs and symptoms that could signal a problem:

The physical signs & symptoms of an eating disorder

  • Rapid changes in weight
  • Suffering from low energy
  • The sudden onset or worsening of other health problems

(See also the symptoms specific to anorexia or bulimia listed below)

The behavioral signs & symptoms of an eating disorder

  • Wearing baggy or heavier clothing, even on hot days, in an effort to conceal weight gain or loss, or because they feel cold all the time.
  • A sudden change in eating habits
  • Becoming more secretive about eating or preferring to eat alone
  • Making up excuses to avoid eating in front of others, such as saying they aren’t hungry, saying they already ate, or claiming to feel sick
  • Withdrawing from social situations that involve food
  • Becoming more socially reclusive and avoiding friends and family in general
  • Ritualizing or obsessing over food, such as clipping pictures or hoarding recipes
  • Becoming more selective about what they eat or avoiding foods that used to be favorite items
  • Complaining about one’s weight or expressing concerns about being fat, especially if a child is a normal weight
  • Exhibiting an obsessive focus on calories or an extreme interest in dieting
  • Unexplained mood swings or angry outbursts.

“If they’re cutting out any food groups, that’s definitely something to keep an eye on,” says Oona Hansen, a mentor who works with youth affected by eating disorders. “When their favorite foods are no longer in rotation.” that’s a red flag. Mood swings can be another dead giveaway: “What people think of as triggers of eating disorders [like moodiness] are more often the result of malnutrition,” says Hansen. (Tauber, 201) Of course, teens are prone to mood swings for other reasons as well, but hunger affects the brain in profound ways.

Signs & symptoms specific to ANOREXIA

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Thinning hair
  • Irregular periods or loss of menstruation in an adolescent girl
  • Stunted growth or delayed maturation in a prepubescent child
  • Lower pulse, low blood pressure or irregular heartbeat, often accompanied by high cholesterol
  • Drops in estrogen levels
  • Suffering from fatigue or confusion
  • Shivering or complaining about being cold
  • Pale or discolored looking skin
  • Becomes extremely anxious around the possibility of eating
  • Exercise becomes excessive or compulsive
  • They begin eliminating entire food groups in the interest of “clean”eating (which results in malnourishment)
  • Excessive consumption of water.

Signs & symptoms specific To BULIMIA

  • Frequently excusing themselves to the bathroom after eating
  • Fluctuating weight
  • Fingers that are raw from using them to induce vomiting
  • Swelling of the salivary glands in the cheek.

Signs & Symptoms specific to BINGE EATING

  • Excessive amounts of food items go mysteriously missing from the fridge or pantry
  • Stashing, stockpiling, or hoarding food in unusual places like a backpack, closet or under the bed
  • Disappearing behind closed doors or staying up late at night
  • Finding empty food containers or packaging lying around the house
  • You discover food wrappers in the bin that have been intentionally buried underneath the other trash to conceal them.

What to do if you suspect your child has an eating disorder

If you suspect your child might have an eating disorder, the best thing to do is to start monitoring them a little more closely. What, specifically, have you personally witnessed them eat in the last few days? Are you sure they were actually consuming it (as apposed to holding it in front of them to throw you off)? Do they disappear after meals? Once you know what you’re looking for, the signs and symptoms are easy to spot if you pay closer attention.

You should also try to have a heart to heart talk with your teen, expressing your concerns and stating matter-of-factly the things that concern you. Just keep in mind that they’re likely to deny it at first. Don’t let them placate you with a shallow denial if the other symptoms are there. Continue to monitor their behavior closely.

If it becomes apparent that your child is struggling with an eating disorder, you need to do two things 1) Get our book Understanding & Overcoming Eating Disorders, which will give you the information you need to know to better help your son or daughter, and 2) Seek professional help. Eating disorders are a serious, life-threatening illness, and the longer they go untreated, the harder they are to overcome. So you need to approach the situation with the seriousness it deserves.

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