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Does your child have an unhealthy relationship with food? Eating disorders can affect children and young people and here we explain what they are and how to get help.

What is an eating disorder in children?

Eating disorders in children are serious conditions that affect both physical health and psychological well-being. If a child has had a problem with food for longer than around 3 months, it may be a sign of an eating disorder.

These disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, can occur for a variety of reasons, including psychological factors, environmental influences and genetic predispositions. Eating disorders are often characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food and a distorted body image, which can lead to dangerous eating behaviours and an obsession with body weight and shape.

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Early detection and treatment is crucial to prevent long-term consequences and support the child’s return to healthy eating habits and self-image. It is important that caregivers, parents and teachers are aware of the signs of eating disorders and approach the situation with understanding and readiness to seek professional help.

What are the signs of an eating disorder in children?

Signs of an eating disorder in children can include:

  • Changes in eating behavior, such as avoiding meals or specific foods, eating in secret. Going to the toilet immediately after eating.
  • Extreme focus on weight and body, including frequently talking about being “too fat” or doing excessive exercise. Wearing only baggy clothes.
  • Weight changes, either weight loss or in some cases weight gain (in the case of binge eating).
  • Emotional changes, such as increased irritability, anxiety around meals or social withdrawal.
  • Physical symptoms including fatigue, weakness, abdominal discomfort, or in girls, lack of menstruation.
  • Negative self-image, and low self-esteem related to body image. Following people on social media with a focus on body image.
  • Development of rituals around food and meals, such as cutting food into very small pieces.

Early detection and treatment is crucial to reduce the risk of long-term physical and psychological consequences. If you suspect that a child may have an eating disorder, it is important to seek professional help.


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Common eating disorders in children

Common eating disorders in children include:

1. Anorexia nervosa

Children with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of weight gain and a distorted body image, leading to extremely restricted food intake and often excessive physical activity. This can result in dangerous weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.

2. Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by behaviours to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercise. Children with bulimia may experience shame and guilt around their eating behaviors.

3. Binge eating disorder (binge eating syndrome)

This condition involves recurrent episodes of binge eating without subsequent attempts to ‘lose’ weight, as seen in bulimia. Children who binge eat consume large amounts of food in a short period of time and often feel a sense of loss of control during these episodes.

4. Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)

Formerly known as selective eating disorder, ARFID involves a significant restriction in the types or amount of food ingested, not because of a concern about body weight or shape, but rather because of a lack of interest in food, or an aversion to certain textures or flavors. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies and weight loss.

These eating disorders can have serious physical and psychological consequences for children, and it is important to seek professional help at the first sign of any of these conditions. Treatment strategies vary depending on the specific eating disorder and the child’s individual needs, but may include nutritional counseling, psychotherapy and family therapy. Early intervention is essential to promote recovery and support the child’s health and well-being.


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Treatment for eating disorders in children

Treatment for eating disorders in children involves a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on restoring healthy eating behaviors and addressing psychological causes. It includes medical monitoring, nutritional therapy, individual and family-based psychotherapy, possible medication support, as well as education and long-term follow-up support. A tailored treatment plan and the active involvement of the family are central to the child’s recovery.

To get help with an eating disorder, you can contact your health center for a referral to a specialist clinic for eating disorders in children and adolescents. You can also get advice from our psychologists at Lavendla who are experienced in eating disorders.


12 frequently asked questions about eating disorders in children

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are often characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food and a distorted body image, which can lead to dangerous eating behaviours and an obsession with body weight and shape.

What causes an eating disorder in children?

Eating disorders can occur for a variety of reasons, including psychological factors, environmental influences and genetic predispositions.

What are the signs of an eating disorder in children?

Signs of an eating disorder in children include dramatic weight change, avoidance of meals, a fixation on body weight and shape, extreme diets or binge eating episodes, and physical symptoms such as fatigue or stomach problems.

What is anorexia?

Anorexia is an intense fear of weight gain and a distorted body image, leading to extremely restricted food intake and often excessive physical activity. This can result in dangerous weight loss and nutritional deficiencies, so it is important to seek help.

What is bulimia?

Bulimia involves episodes of binge eating followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse or excessive exercise. Children with bulimia may experience shame and guilt around their eating behaviors.

What is ARFID?

Formerly known as selective eating disorder, ARFID involves a significant restriction in the types or amount of food ingested, not because of a concern about body weight or shape, but rather because of a lack of interest in food, or an aversion to certain textures or flavors. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies and weight loss.

How can an eating disorder be treated?

Treatment of eating disorders in children involves a multidisciplinary approach that focuses on restoring healthy eating behaviors and addressing psychological causes. It includes medical supervision, nutritional therapy, individual and family-based psychotherapy, possible medication support, and education and long-term follow-up support.

Can you have other mental health problems at the same time as the eating disorder?

It is common to have other co-morbidities such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, so it is important to have a thorough assessment of the symptoms and a treatment plan that addresses the different problems.

What is a child psychologist?

A child psychologist is a licensed professional with knowledge and experience in working on the well-being and mental health of children and parents. They offer therapy and counseling, but also work with families in parental support and the whole family when needed. They also collaborate with schools to create good conditions for the child.

Can I see a child psychologist privately?

It is possible to see a child psychologist privately. At Lavendla we have several psychologists who have extensive experience of working with children and young people. For more severe problems, it is good to seek help in specialist psychiatry for more extensive treatment efforts, it is possible to get a referral via your health center.

My child won’t eat, what should I do?

It is important to take the problems seriously and, if they have been occurring for a long time, to seek treatment. It is also important to get support as a parent to deal with the possible eating disorder in a good way.

Where can I turn if my child needs help with an eating disorder?

For more serious problems, you can contact an eating disorder clinic for children and young people that specializes in eating disorders. At Lavendla, we have experienced child psychologists who can also help.

Treatment for eating disorders in children

Treatment for eating disorders in children is often an integrated and multidisciplinary process that aims to address both the physical and psychological factors. The main goal is to restore the child’s healthy eating behaviours, normalize weight, treat any psychological issues, and support the child and family through the recovery process. Here are some core components of the treatment:

1. Medical supervision

It is important to closely monitor the child’s physical health to manage any medical complications arising from the eating disorder.

2. Nutritional therapy

A registered dietician can provide nutritional therapy to help the child understand the importance of balanced nutrition and gradually restore a healthy eating pattern.

3. Psychotherapy

  • Individual therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help the child identify and change the thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to the eating disorder.
  • Family-based therapy (FBT) is often effective for younger children and adolescents, with the family playing a central role in treatment, helping to monitor meals and support the child’s recovery.

4. group therapy or support groups

These can offer children and young people additional support and understanding from others experiencing similar challenges.

5. Drug treatment

In some cases, medication, such as antidepressants, can be part of the treatment plan to manage concurrent depression or anxiety.

6. Education and self-help

Educating the child and family about eating disorders and how they are managed can be an important part of recovery. Self-help resources and coping strategies can also be included.

7. Long-term support and follow-up

Regular follow-up visits with the health care team are important to monitor recovery and prevent relapse.

The treatment plan should be individually tailored to the child’s age, specific needs and the family’s situation. Family involvement and support is crucial throughout the treatment process. Collaboration between healthcare providers, schools and other support systems can further strengthen treatment outcomes and the child’s well-being.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.