Signs & Symptoms

Disordered Eating

Is your child not eating well?

Eating is a primary function in life. We think of food, clothing and shelter as primary to survival, yet eating is also a significant area of concern for many parents. Many types of eating concerns are reflected above.

Disordered eating can take on many different forms. Some children forget to eat, don’t notice they are hungry or can’t sit still long enough to eat even the smallest meal. Some refuse certain smells or textures or even food presentation “my beans are touching the potatoes!”

This level of picky eating is a problem if you have an ever-dwindling list of foods your child will eat. A child who lives primarily on Cheetos or eats only white foods, or refuses all meat, vegetables and fruit has a restricted diet that can have a profound implication in health.

Some children hoard food in their bedrooms or in the couch cushions. You may find rotting food in your child’s room on a regular basis and hear the excuse “Oh I was going to eat that” or “I didn’t put that there.”

Other children and adolescents actively avoid food as a way of restricting caloric intake and controlling something fundamental to their being. These children may appear underweight, may have a distorted body image or may resort to vomiting or laxatives to purge themselves of unwanted calories.

Other children and adolescents may overeat. This behavior may happen during emotional times or may be a compulsion. Vomiting or restricting food at other times may or may not be an issue for your child. Overeating and binge eating may result in sudden weight gain. Weight may skyrocket; your child may feel ashamed and may start to eat in secret.

What do challenges with Disordered Eating look like?

  • Eating too much or not enough?
  • Gagging or throwing up after eating?
  • Refusing fruits and vegetables?
  • Eating only these food groups: French fries, pizza, and fruit snacks?
  • Appearing to be sensitive to the texture, smell, and presentation of food?
  • Requiring you to cook at least 3 different meals at dinner?
  • Not sitting down or stopping to eat a meal?
  • Failing to recognize cues of hunger, getting “hangry” (hungry and angry) without being able to identify the hunger?
  • Criticizing her body physically on a regular basis?

Why is Disordered Eating happening?

Challenges with eating are fairly common in younger children. Your child may be picky and avoid any food that looks new or different. This is completely normal. The most important thing a parent can do in that situation is to keep offering the foods, at least 13 times. Yes! It often takes at least 13 times before a child might take a liking to a new food. Another reason children may struggle with eating could be related to sensory sensitivity. Children who are not in tune to bodily cues, may not realize that they are hungry and need to eat. Sensory sensitivities can create “picky” eaters with drastically reduced diets. More serious issues with eating include disorders like anorexia and bulimia which require treatment because these disorders are extremely dangerous to their health. Eating disorders include a significant need for control over one’s own environment. Human beings can control eating at the fundamental level. While other aspects of life may be out of control, eating can be controlled. If you think your child has an eating disorder, consult the doctor right away. If instead your ‘picky eater’ needs a gentle nudge to try more foods, keep working at it and don’t give up. If challenges persist, eating therapists or occupational therapists can help.

How can I manage Disordered Eating at home?

For mild eating issues: At home, if these symptoms are mild but you have a few concerns, try these tips. First and foremost, lighten up. Most food issues are about control. If you are nervous and controlling, your child’s problems will get worse.

Make mealtime fun. For example, play a trivia game at the table, watch a cool video, and share compliments with each other. Do not make dinnertime negative. Provide choices for food, and make options available that your child will eat. Offer the tiniest bites of new and unfamiliar foods, and reward trying new things.

Do not restrict access to food at other times. Have healthy fruit and vegetable snacks available all the time. Have protein bars or other snacks that include needed nutrients. Make sure this food is accessible anytime day or night if your child needs to gain weight.

For overeating: If your child needs to lose weight, again offer healthy options and keep anything that could be binged on (like honey, chips, or spaghetti noodles) out of reach or out of access. Don’t have food in the house that you aren’t okay with your child eating. Again provide choices, but also exercise portion control at meals under the guidance of a nutritionist.

For picky eaters, a guide is provided for introducing new foods in the sensory sensitivity article.  These suggestions are just a few tips; it is important to seek professional help for eating issues, so do not delay.

For eating disorders: Eating Disorders are very serious and can be life threatening. First and foremost, seek support from your pediatrician, and get a referral to work with a specialist. If your child has more sensory challenges, consider Feeding Therapy, a systematic treatment for expanding your child’s diet. This approach may need to be reinforced with ABA therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis) at home to work on implementing strategies aimed to increase food intake.

For Anorexia, impatient treatment is necessary as this eating disorder is a life-threatening illness. Your child needs around-the-clock care and support. For trauma and depression, outpatient support from an eating disorder clinic and perhaps a nutritionist can help. Psychotherapy is recommended to treat emotional symptoms in older children or adults, and play therapy can help with the little ones.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Disordered Eating?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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