Small Changes Can Mean Big Things: A Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders in Our Youth

24 Feb Small Changes Can Mean Big Things: A Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders in Our Youth

By: Our PediaTrust PCPA Therapists and Nutritionist Marisa Persky 

With this week being National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we thought it would be an excellent time to speak with our mental and behavioral health therapists, as well as our nutritionist, to go over the effects of eating disorders on kids, teens, and adolescents, and what parents should be on the lookout for if they believe their child may be suffering from one.

What are eating disorders, and what do they mean for our kids?

  • Eating disorders are a set of disorders that severely impact a person’s physical and emotional well-being and cause disruption to daily functioning.
  • While eating disorders occur across ages, genders, and racial/ethnic groups, they are more common in females and often first appear in adolescence and young adulthood.


What about eating disorders in males?

  • Although eating disorders are more common in teen girls and young women, males can also develop an eating disorder, and the incidence of eating disorders in males seems to be rising.
  • According to our Nutritionist, Marisa Persky, with males, the initial intent seems to be to eat “healthier”, and athletes who compete in certain sports that emphasize weight and appearance, including gymnastics, wrestling, rowing, bodybuilding, running, and dancing, are at higher risk.


What types of eating disorders are there? There are several types of eating disorders with different signs and symptoms, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

  • Anorexia nervosa is characterized by abnormally low body weight, fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight and body size.
  • Individuals with bulimia nervosa may exhibit episodes of binging and purging and experience a lack of control overeating.
  • Binge eating disorder is characterized by regular binging (eating too much food) and feeling a lack of control overeating.


As a parent, what are some of the signs I should be looking for? Early warning signs of an eating disorder can include emotional, behavioral, and physical signs.

  • Emotional and behavioral warning signs include negative comments about one’s body image, withdrawing from loved ones, checking oneself in the mirror frequently, dressing in many layers or baggy clothing, obsessively reading nutrition information, excessive focus on and time spent exercising, avoiding or withdrawing from social events involving food, mood swings, and difficulty concentrating.
  • It can start out simple by eliminating sweets and eating more fruits and veggies but then can quickly change to a rigid style of eating such as reducing portions of food substantially, counting calories, fear of added sugars, and so on. An obsession with “clean eating” including cutting out carbs, increasing protein, or adhering to restrictive fad diets are other common features.
  • Physical signs may be more apparent including weight fluctuations, menstrual irregularities, recurrent complaints of feeling cold, dizziness or fainting, sleep issues, and finger cuts/calluses or dental issues (as a result of purging which is self-induced vomiting).
  • Signs to look for when eating meals together include eating large amounts of food, going to the bathroom in the middle of meals or right after, cutting food into small pieces, pushing food around the plate,
  • This is not an exhaustive list, but rather an array of early signs commonly demonstrated. Remember: every person is unique, and your loved one may not display all these signs at once. 


What kind of treatments are available for eating disorders? Due to the psychological and physical implications associated with eating disorders, an integrative and holistic treatment approach is recommended.

  • Therapeutic treatment interventions facilitated by a mental health practitioner include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Family Therapy, and Group therapy to process triggers, understand emotions, and develop appropriate coping skills to deal with the feelings and maladaptive behaviors associated with eating disorders.
  • Ancillary supports such as nutrition counseling, medical monitoring, and in some cases a higher level of residential care may be warranted based on severity of symptoms.


Is there anything I can do to help prevent my child from developing an eating disorder? To help stop the onset of eating disorders, parents are encouraged to:

  • Have open communication with their child or adolescent about eating habits and body image.
  • Discuss how diet can affect his or her health, energy level, and appearance.
  • Eat together as a family every night, to give you an opportunity to model healthy eating and set a positive association with food.
  • Discuss the impact of messages from society and media, as youth are often highly influenced by the messages surrounding them from their environment.
  • To promote a healthy body image and foster positive self-esteem, parents should avoid making potentially hurtful comments about appearance- even if the comments are meant to be harmless- and rather focus on the child or adolescent’s strengths.
  • These strategies may contribute to lower rates of eating disorders but are by no means guaranteed that eating disorders will not develop.


We’d like to thank our PCPA Therapists; Shauna Freedman, Ali Swillinger, Annette Popernik, and Denise Gardner, and our Pediatric Registered Dietitian, Marisa Persky, for attributing to this blog post. To book an appointment with one of our therapists, please call your PediaTrust pediatrician. To book an appointment with Marisa Persky, please call 224-707-8893.

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