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Eating Difficulties

How to support a young person who may have eating difficulties

Whilst eating disorders are serious, potentially life threatening mental health conditions, it is important to remember that they are relatively rare. It is not uncommon for young people to become more body conscious, feel dissatisfied with their body image and weight, go on diets or become faddy eaters during their adolescent years. Not every young person who experiences this has or will develop an eating disorder.

The information below should be used as a guide and does not include all possible symptoms. No one symptom is diagnostic.


Spotting the signs and symptoms

Changes in eating, weight and shape attitudes and behaviour

  • Making excuses for why they’re not eating for example denial of hunger/ feeling sick/ already eaten
  • Asking for healthy foods or wanting to follow various diets such as vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, raw food or low carbohydrate without good reason
  • Cutting out food groups , especially fats and carbohydrates
  • Eating unusual food combinations (and this is a new behaviour)
  • Having rituals around eating or preparing food
  • Checking food labels or packaging obsessively
  • Meticulous weighing of food or scrutiny of calories
  • Becoming distressed if others prepare food
  • Chewing gum and/or drinking a lot of water
  • Finding hidden food around the house

Other changes in behaviour

  • Being more active (increase in exercise) and being disciplined about this or becoming upset if prevented doing from exercise
  • Active fidgeting, such as finding excuses to go up and down the stairs or bouncing legs
  • Appearing lethargic or sleeping more
  • More secretive, less open
  • Becoming more withdrawn and isolated
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Wearing/ requiring clothes of a very small size or clothes intended for a much younger child
  • Either being preoccupied with checking themselves in the mirror and weighing or they avoid mirrors and scales altogether
  • Deterioration in academic performance

Physical symptoms and changes

  • Weight loss (especially if sudden or rapid)
  • Complains of feeling faint or dizzy
  • Complains of feeling the cold
  • Periods stop (they make stop asking for feminine hygiene products) or become irregular or less regular or
  • Tiredness/ more lethargic
  • Symptoms of vomiting such as halitosis, swollen puffy face or frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Dry cracked lips

Mood and emotional symptoms or changes

  • Does this mean mood swings?, irritable, tearful or generally behaving ‘out of character’
  • Appearing pre-occupied or unable to concentrate, forgetful
  • Anxious, easily stressed, , especially. at mealtimes
  • Worrying about what others might think about them/ low self-esteem
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities including friendships
  • Rigid thinking, wanting to be in control

Emergency symptoms- seek immediate medical advice

  • Sudden or rapid weight loss
  • Fainting
  • Food or fluid refusal longer than 24 hours
  • Complaints of chest pains
  • Concerns,/ evidence or information about daily vomiting


What to do once you’ve identified a concern or difficulty

  • Let the young person know the plan- that extra support and advice needs to be sought
  • Let your GP know your concerns and ask for a physical health check as soon as possible
  • Contact Hampshire Specialist Eating Disorder Service for more specific help and advice: SPNT.HantsCamhsEDT@nhs.net
  • Tel: 0300 304 0062 (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm)

Top tips on how to approach a young person you have concerns for

  • Stay calm
  • Find time; don’t rush the conversation
  • Be prepared for a young person to deny or minimise a difficulty
  • Be prepared to listen, acknowledge and validate a young person’s emotions and thoughts
  • Let the young person know you want to understand, help and support

Top tips on how to support a young person at meal times

  • Stay calm, keep the environment calm
  • Make adequate time for meals, it may take a young person longer to start or complete eating if they are anxious
  • Where possible, have the family to eat together
  • At mealtimes, do not get drawn into discussion, negotiation or compromise on the expectations of the meal. This will only increase stress for you and your child
  • Talk about other things, have some neutral topics of conversation in mind to have during mealtimes
  • Try not to congratulate or criticise what has or has not been eaten but acknowledge the effort being made and validate the emotion/ distress

Other things to be mindful of

  • Remind your child that you love and care about them; that you will get through the difficulties together
  • Validate their distress not their behaviour; the emotional struggle is very real even if you find it hard to understand
  • Avoid using food as bribes, punishment or rewards. Food is fuel for the body, it is necessary and should be consistent
  • Lead by example; don’t skip meals or participate in fad diets
  • Don’t ‘hide’ or lie about what is in meals for example adding extra butter to mash , as this may lead to mistrust
  • Be aware that any comments about their appearance may be misinterpreted
  • Try not to make comparisons about eating behaviour or appearance between siblings or other young people
  • Help your child develop a critical awareness of the images and messages they receive from television, magazines, the internet and social media
  • Take care of yourself; have ‘you’ time.


It is really important to remember that it’s not your fault. You have not caused the eating disorder. Families are however, integral to the recovery process, as an eating disorder/ difficulty impacts upon the whole family


Useful websites and helpline numbers:



The Beat Adult Helpline is open to anyone over 18. Parents, teachers or any concerned adults should call the adult helpline.
Helpline: 0808 801 0677
Email: help@beateatingdisorders.org.uk

The Beat Youthline is open to anyone under 18.
Youthline: 0808 801 0711
Email: fyp@beateatingdisorders.org.uk

ABC (Anorexia & Bulimia Care)


Call: 03000 11 12 13