It’s quite normal for children to go through phases of refusing to eat, being fussy about vegetables or not wanting sauces/wet food or certain things touching other things on the plate etc.
I’ve been there myself & now go through it with my own girls & I’m the first one to complain about how inconvenient it is after a long day in the office. I remember not liking fruit until I was about 13 years of age then at age 14 I went off all meat & decided to become vegetarian. My poor parents didn’t know what to cook any more & struggled with every mealtime.
When children decide to take control of what they eat its normally a sign that they feel they are not in control of other areas of their life, such as school friends, or home life struggles or even growing up & hormones.
But when should you have real concerns & how can you support your child if it becomes more serious?
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses
Sometimes, when self-worth is low children focus on something they can control & change, such as a dislike of their body. When things progress in this area, they can start to manage these feelings through controlled eating or binge eating.
Because the perception of themselves is quite distorted & heightened by high anxiety & low self-esteem, they may not be able to see any positive changes to their body so the controlled eating continues to escalate. This process is known as body dysmorphia.
Eating disorders are rare among key stage 1 school children, but they can start to emerge as an issue between the ages of nine to twelve, & often when children transition to secondary school
Risk factors for eating disorders include:
A poor sense of self
Feeling overwhelmed by difficult emotions & circumstances
Body image concerns & dissatisfaction
Over exposure to popular or distorted media ideals of body image
Involvement in sports or activities where body image & low weight are important
Some possible signs of an eating disorder include:
Avoiding eating around others
Low confidence & self-esteem
Baggy clothes or clothing that is tight yet in a small size
Obsessive &/or rigid behaviour
Frequent trips to the toilet
Perfectionism & setting unreasonably high personal standards
Changes to weight – either gaining or losing weight
Having a distorted view of themselves as being fat (body dysmorphia)
Top Tips for parents & carers: Be alert & spot early signs
Has your child frequently complained about going to school?
Does he/she seemed overly down when being dropped off or picked up but won’t say why?
Maybe you child is missing school meals or avoiding eating?
Perhaps she/he is even telling people that they have already eaten, or they will eat later.
Is he/she focusing too much on body image or describing themselves as fat?
Is she/he comparing themselves to other unrealistic body images or celebrities on social media or TV?
Is he/she having trouble sleeping?
Does he/she have problems with their teeth such as early decay, low calcium or overly sensitive teeth?
Communicating is key:
If you are concerned about a child, talk to them. Don’t be afraid to ask them if they are worried about themselves or if there is something worrying them. They may not feel comfortable discussing any concerns with you straight away so give them the space to come forward & chat to you at a later date. At least they know you care & are there for them. If he/she doesn’t come to you later then ask again in a relaxed way (You don’t want to provoke the opposite affect & push them away.)
Share your concerns:
Without overwhelming the child, share your concerns about any other changes you’ve noticed, e.g. depression, anxiety or isolation. If a problem is developing, the sooner they get support the better & they could feel a great sense of relief that the ‘secret is out’ & they no longer have to manage those feelings alone.
Get external help:
If after many failed attempts you still feel he/she is hiding something you are concerned about, you may want to suggest they talk to someone else. Sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger as the risk of being judged by the client is reduced. Don’t feel you have failed if your child feels more comfortable with this option.
It doesn’t mean they love you any less. Some children can experience feelings or embarrassment or shame if they have been making themselves sick or throwing away food you have made for them so they may not want to open up about these things when they are already struggling emotionally. Be patient. Often than not a child will come to you when you least expect it & when they are ready to talk.
Always ask your GP or school about good, qualified counsellors that have experience of working with children.
What schools can do:
All children are likely to benefit from schools delivering good quality teaching programmes supporting children’s social & emotional skills, helping children understand & recognise thoughts & feelings & helping develop effective coping strategies, promoting self-esteem & resilience. Like self-harming, eating disorders can often be a survival strategy in the face of overwhelming emotions & difficulties – so teaching effective ways of dealing with thoughts & feelings from early on is likely to be important.
At primary school level, it’s important that the focus is on body image & healthy eating & living
Teaching children to be happy with who they are & to celebrate diversity & difference is key. It is also important to help children develop skills to recognise when they are being sold idealised images or misleading advertising images.