Eating disorders are mental health conditions where a child, teenager or adult controls their eating because of worries or beliefs about their size, weight or body shape. Or does not eat enough or overeat. A person can have one mental health condition, like an eating disorder. Or they might have a mental health condition and have other disabilities, diagnoses or special health care needs.
This page is about serious eating challenges that cause health risks that a professional might diagnose as an eating disorder. We have another page on challenges with eating that many parents of children with disabilities face—such as a child only eating certain foods or textures or food colors, having medications that make them not want to eat, g-tubes or feeding tubes and more.
If you think your child might have an eating disorder, it’s a good idea to talk to a mental health professional for help.
Eating disorders are problems in how a person eats or relates to food and their body. Your child might spend a lot of their day focusing on eating, food, exercising or other related things.
Some common eating disorders are:
AFRID is more common in children with autism or an intellectual or developmental disorder (IDD). For more tips on helping children with sensory issues or fears around eating, see our page on Challenges with Eating. And our page on Mental Health for Children With IDD.
Also, children with other mental health conditions, like depression, may just not want to eat, which can cause health problems.
If you are concerned about your child’s eating and mental health, it’s a good idea to start by talking to their doctor or a mental health professional. Psycom has a quick list of early signs and symptoms of eating disorders, and the National Association of Eating Disorders has longer lists of warning signs and symptoms.
There can be many different eating disorder symptoms. And none of these symptoms alone are an eating disorder. It’s important to get a professional’s help.
Many parents of children with an eating disorder say they noticed a real change in their child’s behaviors, moods or beliefs related to food or their body. This change might happen fast—or over time. A doctor can help a family know how their child is growing and developing. And other professionals, like counselors or therapists, can help a child and family understand if there’s an eating disorder, how it works, and how they can start to heal.
For eating disorders—and any mental health condition—a professional like a therapist will see your child and give a diagnosis. There are professionals and special eating disorder programs or hospitals that help to treat eating disorders in children. Programs might include a counselor, nutritionist, dietician, doctor and other types of therapists who can work together to help your child. Usually, family therapy is part of treating an eating disorder. Learn more from the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.
Here are some things that parents can keep in mind:
If your child is losing or gaining a lot of weight and seems to have strong eating worries or behaviors that concern you, it’s a good idea to look for help. See our page on Finding Mental Health Resources for Children as a place to start.