Eating Disorders

Understanding disordered eating

Eating disorders can occur in any family and may be triggered for many different reasons. Some common triggers are excessive stress, anxiety, dieting, athletics, depression or a traumatic event. After the COVID pandemic, there has been a huge upsurge in disordered eating. There is good evidence that genetics may contribute as well as multiple other societal factors and personality factors (such as perfectionism). There is emerging evidence that eating disorders are also more common in autistic people or those with autistic traits. For many people, it develops as a coping strategy when life feels out of control or overwhelming. It can be easy to convince yourself that what you are doing is ‘normal’ or even healthy.
Social media can be a negative influence by portraying highly manipulated images and promoting toxic messages about body image and weight. The video below is from the Dove self-esteem campaign- warning; it contains real stories about body image that may be upsetting. Remember too that although this video focuses on the effect of social media on girls, boys can get eating disorders too and are often diagnosed late.

For more resources and videos see the pages on body image and self-esteem

Did you know?

Many people with disordered eating have a weight in or above the normal range. The problem lies in how they control food, how they see food and how thoughts around food, weight and body image start to take over their lives.

For parents

Worrying whether your child has developed an eating disorder is incredibly upsetting and parents nearly always blame themselves in some way, but the causes of eating disorders are complicated and different in every case. Understanding the emotions and drivers for disordered eating can help you help your child into recovery. 

When to see your doctor

See your doctor (GP) as soon as possible to discuss whether a referral to specialist services is needed. Sometimes teenagers and young adults may not want to see a doctor or may not feel there is much of a problem. This denial and rationalisation are what allow someone to continue in what are often very extreme behaviours.

Letting go of an eating disorder and ‘getting better’ can be very frightening even when someone realises they are harming themselves. Understanding this ambivalence can be hard for parents, but is important to help you support them.

Resources for parents and caregivers

If your child agrees to see their doctor, they may wish to go alone. While a doctor cannot share information that someone over 16 has told them without that person’s consent, a parent can share their worries with the doctor. There is a lot of help and information available for young people and their families which we’ve pulled together for you here. Parents often find real-life stories helpful and there are several charities with helplines or e-mail support.

Eating disorder helplines

  • Talk-ED has online community support for parents and carers and also a help directory where you can put in your postcode and find counsellors in your area. Helpline 03000 111213. Option1 (support) Option 2 (family and friends)
  • Beat eating disorders Helpline, directory of services, stories, blogs and the possibility to chat online. There is also a separate helpline for young people under 18. Helpline 0808 8010677
  • YoungMinds Parent Helpline and other support
  • The Mix (for under 25’s) Helpline for support on any topic. They also offer e-mail support, message boards and text support.          

Eating disorders information and charities

Top recommended resource

Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders: how to help your child eat well and live well by Eva Musby. The video below is just one of many you can find on Eva Musby’s YouTube channel – practical, empathetic and from the perspective of someone who’s been in your shoes.

Parents on eating disorders

  • Hope with Eating Disorders by Lynn Crilly, written from a parent’s first-hand experience, advice on how to identify and cope with different eating disorders and case studies.
  • Bite-sized A Mother’s Journey alongside Anorexia in poetry form by Fiona Hamilton 
  • The Food of Love by Amanda Prowse. A novel about a mother discovering her daughter has an eating disorder. It starts with a light touch but doesn’t shy away from the realities, including looking at what behaviours from parents and others are helpful and not so helpful. Tough but ultimately hopeful.

For young people

“I think I have an Eating Disorder but I’m scared to make any changes”

Are you wondering whether you might have an eating disorder or have finally realised you do? It can be really hard to be ready to admit there is a problem and even harder to have the courage to do something about it. 

Even if you are not ready to make a change, it can be helpful to have someone to talk things over with so remember you are not alone and there is a lot of support out there for you. Many people with eating disorders are slow to realise they have a problem. They often feel they are ‘not that bad’ even when others around them are worried.

Common warning signs of disordered eating: even just one of these is significant

  • Food and eating are taking up most of your thoughts
  • You never or seldom eat with others because you feel uncomfortable doing so
  • You feel guilty after eating
  • You compensate if you feel you’ve eaten too much with exercise, vomiting or laxatives
  • You spend time every day checking your body in the mirror or with photographs

As well as taking up a lot of time and energy, disordered eating can affect your mood, your skin and hair, your memory, your friendships and your ability to get better from injuries or illness. Even knowing all of this, change is difficult.

Are you ready for change or not yet? Find out here

Read more about the cycle of change here and work out what stage you are at

Help and information for young people

Books for young people

In addition to the books above, the list below may be more suitable for older teens or young adults and are often used by therapists. They are also helpful for parents to understand more about what sort of approaches might help. For example, many people with eating disorders are very hard on themselves and learning ‘self-compassion’ (or being kind to yourself) is an important part of recovery. 

Personal Stories

Apps: get back in control of your eating disorder

  • Mindshift CBT Uses relaxation techniques like “mindful breathing” and positive visualisation to help with anxiety. There is also a section on “Thinking Right” with helpful thoughts which you can select to use instead of your usual negative circular thoughts.
  • Eating Disorder Support App This new App has a huge amount of information, self-help, advice on supporting others, useful links, and even a calm zone
  • RR (Recovery Record)  App with a log for how you feel, but also ideas and suggestions for positive thoughts and coping strategies. Set yourself goals and choose coping skills that you think might work for you (click on coping skills, then add to see a selection but you can also add your own). There are guided meditations that you can pair with images of your choice. Based on CBT techniques, you can also share logs with others such as a counsellor. 
  • Eating Disorders Support App This App is packed with resources such as helplines and charities as well as self-care advice and is bang up-to-date.