OPINION: Helping to spot the signs of eating disorders in children

The NSPCC and Childline can help if your child has issues with eating or body image

The NSPCC and Childline can help if your child has issues with eating or body image - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Staying healthy is incredibly important for a child’s development and good nutrition is essential to this.

However, for numerous reasons, sometimes a child’s eating habits can change and, where there is some secrecy around this by the child, it can be hard for parents and carers to recognise this and to know the reasons why.

Our counsellors at Childline have delivered almost 5,000 counselling sessions about eating and body image disorders since April last year.

Just under half were delivered to children aged 12-15, which is a 13% increase in comparison to 2019/20 figures. Counselling sessions for young people aged 16-18 saw a 7% increase compared to the previous year and almost three quarters of counselling sessions were with girls.

In response to this, Childline has launched a summer social media campaign this week to support young people struggling with these issues. The campaign includes posting across Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, addressing worries young people may have about this issue and signposting the service as a source of support.

As a parent or carer, it can be difficult to accept that your child or young person is suffering from an eating disorder, but knowing about the support that’s available can help to make the first steps in addressing the issue.

It’s really important to remind children that everyone is different and to try not to compare themselves to anyone else.

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Accepting themselves is all about them noticing things they are happy and unhappy about and realising that is what makes them unique.

Images they may see on TV, in magazines, on social media or online are often altered and airbrushed so what they are seeing often isn’t real.

These regular informal chats can form a good foundation for helping a child feel more confident about opening up, expressing their feelings and allowing themselves to be heard.

And whilst no parent wants their child to not eat properly or stop eating altogether, remembering to remain calm and supportive is paramount as anger can easily cause the child to withhold information.

Encouraging the child to access support or talk to others via Childline can help, there are tips to help spots the signs and help children and young people recover.

As well as our phone-in counselling service Childline also has support via our website and the Childline Calm Zone, which provides games and activities to lessen worries and concerns.

The moderated Childline message boards are a place where children and young people can talk to their peers about likeminded worries and concerns. Often there will be positive accounts of how other children overcame their disorders or learnt to manage them and, most importantly, a child won’t be feel alone with their problem.

The Childline website has a dedicated section that covers a range of conditions, from binge eating to anorexia, bulimia and avoidant restrictive food intake as well as advice on staying healthy and getting help.

Body positivity movements continue to press on with various campaigns and many social media adverts and magazines now present beautiful models of all shapes and sizes, but many will argue that there is a long way to go before this type of stigma is stamped out completely. It’s why this new awareness raising campaign from Childline is so important.

If a child is struggling with an eating or body image disorder it is important they know there are adults in their life they can turn to for help and support.

This could be a parent, a teacher, a sibling over the age of 18, a grandparent or a Childline counsellor. Children and young people can contact Childline 24/7 on 0800 1111 or by visiting www.childline.org.uk, where they can also access advice pages and moderated message boards.

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