How Do I Know If My Child Has An Eating Disorder?

Trigger warning: This article discusses eating disorders and mental health in relation to young people. If you are affected by anything in this post, please refer to our free resources listed at the end of this article.


According to a 2023 study, there has been a large rise in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes amongst teenage girls in the UK in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Pearl Mok from The University of Manchester explains that “the reasons for the increase in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes amongst teenage girls during the pandemic are likely to be complex and could be due to a mixture of issues such as social isolation, anxiety resulting from changing routines, disruption in education, unhealthy social media influences, and increased clinical awareness.”

As a parent, it can be worrying to think that you may have missed the signs of an eating disorder. It is common for parents not to recognise the signs, especially if your child seems happy and healthy.

Eating disorders, as well as being major health issues in their own right, are coping mechanisms that often point to underlying emotional and psychological distress (University of Manchester).

Young people who are struggling with an eating disorder develop irrational and unhealthy habits around food and exercise. Importantly, they also try to hide these habits. 

Since young people struggling with eating disorders often try to hide their actions, if you suspect that something is wrong, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for a change in your child’s behaviour.

If you notice that your child is doing or saying things in relation to food and exercise which don’t make sense, you should consider checking up on your child, talking to them about how they feel, and reaching out for help and support.

Early intervention is crucial in preventing the development of eating disorders and mental health issues, so if you do find that your child is struggling, please don’t be afraid to access the help and support that your child needs.

Becoming aware that your child is struggling, especially when your child is unaware themselves, can help you to understand what’s happening and feel more in control. It can also help you to reduce the number of invasive and uncomfortable conversations you have with your child about their eating habits.

If you suspect that your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, there are some hints to look out for:

  • Over-exercising and a fixation on exercise
  • Obsessive or negative thoughts about body size such as negative self-talk
  • Unusual interest in other people’s food
  • Fear or self-conscious about eating in public 
  • Fixating on ‘safe’ foods 
  • Cutting out foods they used to like or entire food groups
  • Purchase of speciality products or ‘health’ foods
  • Eating very fast or very slow
  • Zoning out – they are often preoccupied with the eating disorder symptoms
  • Becoming obsessed with food-related media, such as food videos
  • Saving food and stashing food
  • Encouraging others to eat the food that they wouldn’t want to eat themselves
  • Layering clothes or feeling cold – due to a low cold tolerance 
  • Mood changes or irritability – due to restriction or binging 
  • Lying about their diet or exercise behaviours


Here are some examples of the types of ‘food rules’ someone with an eating disorder might have:

  • Very particular counting of food consumed, very concentrated on amounts of food consumed
  • Specific preference for food to be cooked in a certain way
  • Unusual or picky use of utensils or plates to eat e.g. eating using mini-spoons
  • Strange food pairings 
  • Only eating at certain times of the day
  • Very particular choice of food in shops and reading of labels


Finally, here are some physical signs that may suggest an eating disorder:

  • A fine layer of body hair is a sign that someone is deprived of fat reserves in their body
  • Dry, pale skin – caused by lack of fat and dehydration 
  • Marks or abrasions on the knuckles – caused by forcibly throwing up
  • Hoarse voice or other vocal changes – continued vomiting can cause damage to your voice 
  • Eroded teeth – due to stomach acids 
  • Puffy cheeks – due to constant vomiting  
  • Brittle nails 
  • Sudden changes in weight or size 


It should be noted that this is not a comprehensive list. If your child is demonstrating these behaviours, this also doesn’t mean that your child necessarily has or is at risk of developing an eating disorder. 

Different types of eating disorders demonstrate different behaviours; however, if your child is showing signs which make you feel at all concerned, please do reach out for help and guidance. 

Recognising the signs early will help you to get the right support and prevent life-long negative impacts on a young person’s mental health.



If you need support with your child’s mental health, or if you are affected by any of the things discussed in this article, then please access our free resources below:

DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE BOOKLET and learn how a mother led her self-harming teenage child back to health & happiness:

WATCH THIS VIDEO where Joel & Claire Sutton, founders of The Horizon Plan, explain how parents can play a huge role guiding their self-harming child back to health and happiness:

JOIN OUR FACEBOOK SUPPORT GROUP FOR PARENTS OF YOUNG PEOPLE WHO SELF-HARM and connect with a community of like-minded parents. Sharing your story and receiving support and advice from other parents/carers can be a huge help. Our free Facebook support group is open to all parents/carers supporting a young person struggling with mental health and self-harm. You are not alone. Join here today:





Mind: Treatment and Support For Eating Disorders (

Beat Eating Disorders

0808 801 0677 (England)

British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP)

Information about cognitive behavioural therapy and related treatments, including details of accredited therapists.



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