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Author: Dr Charlie BailyClinical Psychologist

If you are concerned that your child or teenager may be suffering from anorexia, or if they have been diagnosed with an eating disorder and you are looking for professional support, we can help.

What is anorexia?

Anorexia is a serious mental health condition characterised by an extreme preoccupation for pursuing as low a body weight as possible.

Children and adolescents with anorexia may:

  • Restrict their food intake
  • Exercise excessively
  • Purge
  • Abuse laxatives
  • Use combinations of all of these

The disorder is characterised by an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat and often sufferers perceive themselves to be fat even when dangerously thin.

For young people with anorexia, their weight and shape influences their identity and self-evaluation to a disproportionate degree, to the point where many sufferers can become completely lost in the disorder.

The average age of onset is around 16

What causes anorexia in teenagers and children?

Eating disorders are complex conditions, with a combination of biological, psychological and social causes. Factors ranging from children’s genetic makeup to their life experiences create a unique set of vulnerabilities which may make them vulnerable to the development of anorexia.

As such, it is inaccurate and often very unhelpful to attribute the illness to a single cause. In particular, the common myth that families are responsible for their children developing eating disorders is not supported by research evidence and can be highly counterproductive for sufferers and carers alike.

Anorexia most commonly develops during adolescence.

  1. Biological causes of anorexia
    Increased production of sex hormones during adolescence, such as oestrogen, affects the levels of serotonin and dopamine in a teenagers’ brain, and abnormal levels of these neurotransmitters responsible for many aspects of physiological and emotional regulations have been linked to eating disorders. Puberty also affects how our genetic data is expressed and this change could be part of the reason why adolescence is a key time for the onset of eating disorders1.
  2. Social causes of anorexia
    Much has been reported about the possible risks that social media has on our children’s likelihood to develop an eating disorder. For some, social media leads to a lowering of self-esteem, higher rates of depression and body image dissatisfaction (a key trait in anorexics).

Child and teenage brains are not fully developed until they are in their 20’s, and in the quest to develop their own sense of identity young people can be very susceptible to the opinions of others.

1. Klump, KL (2007)

Thank you for helping our daughter find some hope again. Things are much calmer at home – Dr K was just wonderful at helping our daughter understand her feelings and we now have a way forward.

Catherine, Manchester


Symptoms of anorexia in teenagers

The following are some of the most common signs that an eating disorder, such as anorexia, may be developing or has developed. If you are concerned about your child or teen’s eating habits, weight loss, mood or behaviours we would also recommend seeking expert help as quickly as possible.

  • Weight loss
  • Looking frail or gaunt
  • Being tired all the time
  • Becoming more secretive, especially around food
  • Reluctance or refusal to eat in front of others
  • Being more restrictive in the foods they will eat
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Hair loss
  • Growth of fine, downy hair on body
  • Stomach complaints
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Becoming socially withdrawn
  • Scrutinising self in mirror
  • Taking a long time to eat meals, not finishing their food
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after a meal
  • Exercising more or in secret
  • Depression, low mood, tearfulness, self harm
  • Bingeing and / or purging behaviour
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

Not all children and teenagers with anorexia will show all of these signs, and as anorexia is notoriously a very secretive illness, it can be hard to really know what is going on for your child. However, if you suspect something is wrong, then it is always advisable to seek professional advice.


What should I do if I think my child or teenager has anorexia?

Identifying whether your child or teenager has an eating disorder and broaching the subject with them can be very challenging. Many teenagers, especially teenage girls, engage in dieting behaviours and express dissatisfaction with their weight even when they are slim. It’s hard for parents to know when their child’s eating behaviours become a significant issue but research shows that early intervention is the best way to determine a full recovery.

Helping your child to see that he or she may have a problem and to agree to an appointment for further professional evaluation is a difficult and important first step in eating disorder recovery. It is very common for young people to become hostile and defensive when loved ones raise concern about their eating, not least if problems really are developing.

Many young people with anorexia are simultaneously in denial about having eating difficulties and believe that the condition benefits them in some way (e.g., helps them focus, evidences self-control and determination). Be prepared for your loved one to state that they don’t have any difficulties or even to say that you are the one with a problem for suggesting as much!

Tips for discussing your child’s eating with them:

  • Note down the things that your child is doing that are causing you concern, being as specific as you can.
  • Try to find a quiet moment outside of meal times to raise these concerns in a calm and non-confrontational way.
  • Do not place undue pressure on yourself to persuade your child of the need for help in a single conversation. Instead think of it as an opening, so that you and your children can keep returning to the topic, over time talk more openly and ultimately consider seeking further, professional support.

 

It would be an oversimplification to suggest that social factors such as a desire to emulate cultural ideals of thinness can on their own cause and maintain anorexia –eating disorders are invariably more complex than that.
PhD, CPsychol

Clinical Psychologist
London

Dr Charlie Baily is a Clinical Psychologist currently working in the private sector. He has a PhD in Clinical Psychology and is a member of The British Psychological Society and Health and Care Professions Council.

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