Signs and Support for Eating Disorders in Teenagers

If you are concerned that your teenager has or may be developing an eating disorder, here are some key signs to look out for and resources for further support.

The information below is not intended as medical advice and is only intended to offer points you may wish to consider in 'non-emergency situations', together with signposting for more support. You should consult an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your child or someone you know. 


The current situation has presented challenges for everyone and now documented by the Government statistics that there has been a significant rise in children and young people being referred to the NHS for an eating disorder.

The stress of the pandemic, related weight gain and the subsequent promotion of healthy eating on social media have all contributed to the rise in numbers, with a focus on eating and weight control being used as a coping mechanism for many.

Key Signs to Look Out For

The behaviours below do not necessarily mean your teenager has an eating disorder but if you do notice three of our of these behaviours in your child, it may be a sign of an underlying condition. Remember that many young people with eating disorders are likely to try and hide it at first.

  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • A dramatic shift in weight, up or down and in a short space of time, could be an indicator. Along with anorexia, eating disorders include Binge Eating Disorder, OFSED and ARFID.

  • Compulsive or obsessive exercise
  • Staying healthy is good, but even athletes have rest days to avoid overwork and injury. Obsessive exercise could be exercising more than once a day, to exhaustion or religiously after they've eaten food. Their mood may plummet if their schedule means they can't fit in

  • Irregular habits around food 
  • This can include eating food very quickly or very slowly, lying about what they've eaten and how much, going to the bathroom straight after eating, cutting food into very small pieces, and avoiding eating with others. A key thing to bear in mind with these behaviours is consistency - a singular occurrence doesn't automatically mean there's something to worry about.

  • Physical symptoms associated with eating disorders 
  • Eating disorders often present physical challenges like exhaustion, stomach pains, feeling cold even when it's warm, bad breath, dizziness or feeling faint, dry skin or hair, and fine hair on the body (lanugo). In women, eating disorders can also cause menstrual irregularities.

  • Engaging with pro-eating disorder (proED) groups
  • Teenagers' use of social media and the internet can draw them into 'pro-ana' or 'pro-mia' (pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia) groups. These communities promote eating disorders as a lifestyle choice, with members encouraging each other by sharing 'thinspiration' photos of celebrity role models and dangerous mantras about food. A popular symbol among these communities is a dragonfly - in particular a dragonfly charm on a red or blue bracelet. Your teen may also start to mention their new friend 'Ana' or 'Mia', with no evidence that these people actually exist.

    Of course, dragonflies are common motifs in jewellery, and Ana and Mia are popular girls' names, so these may be completely unrelated to a proED community. However, these are themes to look out for if you have concerns relating to the other behaviours mentioned above.

How to Support Your Loved One

Treating an eating disorder is complex, although an early intervention can aid recovery. UK charities that treat eating disorders also support sufferers with their mental health, as their actions and physical symptoms are usually a manifestation of poor mental health.

Speaking to your teen may be a good place to start. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and many sufferers aren't aware that they are ill. Getting things out in the open can pave the way towards recovery.

  • Sit down with your teenager somewhere you won't be disturbed and at a time when neither of you are angry or upset.
  • Mention some things that have been concerning you, but don't make the conversation about food/weight, as eating disorders are often a result of how the person is feeling rather than how they treat food.
  • Use 'I' phrases rather than 'You' phrases, such as, 'I wondered if you'd like to talk about how you've been feeling.' This helps your loved one not to feel as though you are being accusatory.

You can also consult your GP and your child's paediatrician. Treatment for eating disorders ranges from behavioural therapy, dietary control, individual and family therapy.

The tips above are from Please look at their Supporting Someone page for more advice on supporting loved ones through recovery.

Seek Support for Yourself

It is important to remember that parents are not the cause of eating disorders. It's not possible to pinpoint what triggers an eating disorder but there is a common theme linking low self-esteem with eating disorders. Reach out to friends, family and healthcare services for support, and talk to others if you need help. Supporting your child means supporting yourself too.

Further Support

Information, support and advice for recovery can be found at the various websites below.