Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

Eating Disorder Service

Information for family and friends

Signs that your child might be developing an eating disorder

As a parent or a friend, you may notice that an individual is losing weight.  However, an eating disorder can be hard to spot – the majority of those with eating disorders (particularly in adult life) are either normal weight, or overweight.  Eating disorders can often go unnoticed for a long period – symptoms can be easy to hide and are frequently associated with secrecy and shame.  An eating disorder is a serious illness which can affect males and females of any ethnicity or weight.  The following signs may alert you to the possibility of an eating disorder.

  • Making excuses to avoid eating with you
  • Skipping meals or eating very little at meals
  • Packed lunches coming home uneaten
  • Snack food disappearing from your cupboards, or spending lots of money on chocolates, sweets and junk food that you don’t see them eat
  • Disappearing to the bathroom straight after meals
  • Exercising intensely
  • Making negative comments about their appearance or feeling or looking “fat”
  • “Checking” their body fat, e.g. pinching the skin on their waist or thighs
  • Losing weight, or rapidly gaining weight
  • Weighing themselves more often
  • Losing interest in things they previously enjoyed
  • Getting angry or irritable
  • Exercising excessively (strenuous, compulsive exercise and feeling guilty if they miss sessions)
  • Missing or irregular periods
  • Dental problems
  • Withdrawing from social activities, especially if food is involved
  • Expressing fear of gaining weight
  • Dry skin around their mouth or callouses on their knuckles (these can be signs that they are making themselves vomit).

Some of these signs, such as loss of weight, loss of interest in usual activities or becoming angry/irritable may indicate that the young person is suffering from stress, anxiety or depression rather than an eating disorder. 

It may be helpful to check out whether their mood has gone down or whether they are worried about something. Young people with depression suffer low mood but may also go off their food and start to lose weight. They often find it very hard to sleep and may lose concentration. Young people with anxiety may be preoccupied with specific worries and may start to avoid things they are anxious about.  

Sometimes it is very difficult to tell what the primary problem is. If you are not sure what is going on for the young person, it may be helpful to get them checked out by their GP.

Last updated: 2 April, 2019