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Spotting an eating disorder in your pre-teen

MEALS, snacks, treats… when careering through the obstacle course of parenting pre-teens, what kids put in their mouths is the challenge that every parent will eventually hit head-on.

It's also no longer just a topic that mums of daughters have near the top of their list of concerns. Recent data from NHS Mental Health Trusts showed that eating disorders are happening at younger ages - including pre-teen - and that there are increasing number of boys suffering too.

girl with weight scales

But while we may tie ourselves in knots about not mentioning the dreaded ‘D’ word or banging on about weight, we don’t necessarily consider the other factors that often contribute to eating disorders, such as the pressures of school and society and the impact of self-esteem.

Everyone who falls prey to this kind of illness has their own unique set of reasons for doing so and it’s impossible to say who is most at risk, but these are some of the eating disorders signs that every parent of tweens should look out for.


In truth, an eating disorder is not actually about food. Rather it is a mental illness where what someone eats is a way of coping with the difficult feelings they are experiencing. Looking at the how much – or little – food is on someone’s plate may not be helpful. Instead be conscious of a significant shift in the mood of your loved one. “A dramatic change in personality or behaviour can be one of the biggest warning signs of an eating disorder taking hold,” says Lynn Crilly, counsellor and author of Hope with Eating Disorders .

A child who is particularly anxious or obsessive around food could be a cause for concern and the charity Anorexia & Bulimia Care does suggest that parents should be alert to a child who loses weight (when they should be growing) or does not gain weight at a time of expected growth, around the ages of 10 to 14.


Eating disorders have a range of causes, from biological and genetic factors through to the influence of social media and pressures at school. “Each person will have an individual set of reasons for their disordered eating, but what they may have in common is disordered thinking, a jumbled sense of self that allows an eating disorder to take hold,” says Lynn.

Some people, particularly those who have poor self-esteem, may be particularly vulnerable to an eating disorder, as well as to other mental health conditions such as depression or obsessive compulsive disorder.

This effects of social media, and the ‘perfect’ world that posts so often present, can be particularly damaging for those with a poor sense of self, particularly in these younger years when the rational, ‘that’s-an-unrealistic-load-of-one-sided-nonsense’ part of their brains remains underdeveloped.

Evidence suggests that perfectionism may also have a part to play. People who are feel they have failed if they don’t achieve amazing grades or get into a great school could turn to food as a way to claw back control. Ironically, an eating disorder can quickly do exactly the opposite, wrestling control away from the sufferer themselves.


While there are countless ways that an eating disorder can be triggered, many of them seemingly inconsequential, there is some evidence to show that they – along with other mental health problems – can take root when life feels a little topsy-turvy. To a tween, starting a new school, making new friends, coping with hormonal hiccups of puberty, or struggling with a step up in school work can feel, at best, confusing and, in some cases, almost catastrophic.

Add in the physical changes that are occurring to their bodies, the increased pressure they may feel to look or act a certain way, and it is no wonder that these years can be so crucial to how our children feel about themselves and the way they look. Difficulties at home that feel out of their control, such as divorce or their first experiences of a death, can also be hard to handle.

Stay alert through these difficult times and, again, keep talking. It’s not a cure-all, but anything that prevents a vulnerable youngster from internalising tricky feelings is all to the good.


While we generally associate eating disorders with girls, boys can be very vulnerable too and face battles with their body image, food and exercise. The charity Beating Eating Disorders suggests around a quarter of the UK’s 1.25 million sufferers are male .

All the above also applies to sons. Like girls, eating disorders in boys also often linked to poor self-esteem, perfectionism, and the pressures of society. The clues in boys may be similar to those in girls, although research also suggests that excessive exercising is more likely to play a part for males trying to control their weight or achieve a certain body ideal.


The website of the eating disorders charity Beating Eating Disorders is a great place to start.

Mel Hunter is a freelance journalist specialising in parenting, mental health and consumer issues. She is also mum of two tweens, a daughter aged 12 and a son aged nine, who has additional needs.

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