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Teenage eating problems

The path to becoming an adult is an exciting and busy time for teenagers. It is full of new experiences and challenges as teenagers begin to find out who they are and become more independent.

It can also be quite a testing time for parents. Many will have to cope with the mood changes and arguments that come with raising a teenager. Once you've got through to your teen, it's well worth it. Until then, if you are having a tough time coping, that's totally normal. Here you can find all the guidance and support you need to get through this tricky but rewarding period.

It's important to remember that as they become more independent teenagers are exposed to more risks. Like social media or pressure from peers to act in ways that seem out of character. These risks can make them more vulnerable to other risks - anxiety or bullying, for example.

At the same time teenagers have lots of expectations on them - from home, from school and from their peers. We expect them to act like young adults, yet they are often treated like children. So if you are concerned about your teen, it's important that you seek help. Don't just wait for them to grow out of it - you could be leaving them vulnerable.

The good news is there is lots of help available. And there is lots of information here to support you.

Eating issues

Thinking or finding out your child has an eating issue can be really worrying and upsetting. But it's not an uncommon problem, and most eating issues happen during a child's teenage years. The upside of this is there is lots of expert support and specialist help available.

What causes eating issues?

Many factors affect a teenager's eating habits. These include the views the people around them show towards food and body image, which includes yourselves as parents!

Extreme emotions are a common cause of eating problems. A teenager's issues with food can begin as a way of coping with these emotions. A person might turn to food for comfort when they feel stressed. Others might lose their appetite when they feel this way. In some cases, if a teenager feels they are losing control, food can be something they have power over.

Other emotions that can cause eating problems include sadness, loneliness, shame, and boredom. Eating problems are often a symptom of a separate mental issue. Getting to understand this deeper issue is often key to coming back to healthy eating habits.

Eating issues: the warning signs

There are many different warning signs to look out for. Does your teenager do any of the following?

  • Lie about how much and when they have eaten
  • Eat a lot of food very fast
  • Go to the bathroom a lot after eating
  • Exercise too much
  • Avoid eating with others
  • Cut their food into small pieces or eat very slowly

There are also many physical symptoms of eating issues. These include:

  • Believing they are fat when they are not
  • A dramatic change in weight or body shape
  • Tiredness and poor concentration
  • Stunted growth
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Unhealthy skin

Unfortunately, you as a parent may need to spot signs in your teenager. This is because many people with eating problems are not aware that they have an issue, or don't want to admit it.

Types of eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa

This is where someone goes to extreme lengths to keep their weight down. They will usually do this by not eating enough and/or exercising too much.

Bulimia

Bulimia sufferers often binge eat, before doing extreme things to avoid gaining weight. These include making themselves sick, using laxatives, and doing too much exercise.

Binge eating disorder (BED)

BED sufferers often eat large amounts of food until they feel uncomfortably full. Shortly, after, they tend to get strong feelings of guilt.

Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OFSED)

When someone's symptoms don't exactly match any of the above, they may be diagnosed with OFSED. This is the most common eating disorder.

Helping your teenager with an eating disorder

How to get through to your teenager

One of the hardest things about eating disorders is the sufferer often struggles to accept that they have a problem. This can make talking to your teenager about it very tough, as they may react angrily or become withdrawn.

Try not to let this bother you. Remember, they're really just feeling scared or powerless, and talking to them is vital for their recovery.

The NHS suggests ways of speaking to your child.

  • Stay calm and prepare what to say
  • Do not blame or judge them, just concentrate on how they're feeling
  • Avoid talking about their appearance, even if it's meant as a compliment
  • Try to use sentences starting with "I", like "I'm worried because you do not seem happy", rather than sentences beginning with "you"
  • Avoid discussing other people's diets or weight problems
  • Try not to feel hurt if they do not open up straight away, and do not resent them for being secretive – this is because of their illness, not their relationship with you

(From the NHS 'Eating disorders: advice for parents' guide)

Top tips for managing your teenager's eating issues

Though your teenager might not thank you at the time, but if you think they may have an eating issue you need to act. The first step is speaking to a GP. Note down your main concerns ahead of time. Your GP will be able to build up a clearer picture of your teenager's situation. They can also refer them for specialist help if needed. Beat have a handy leaflet to help your prepare for and get through the first appointment with a GP.

Besides speaking to your GP, you can also support your teenager by:

  • Being a good role model. Eat well and do a healthy amount of exercise – it may encourage them to do the same.
  • Don't try to cope alone. Encourage family and friends to support your teenager. They may find it easier to speak to someone other than you about their problems.
  • Making mealtimes relaxing. Keep the atmosphere at the dinner table light-hearted. Avoid talk of portion sizes or calories.
  • Keeping busy. Try to engage them in hobbies that don't involve food. Try to do a family activity after evening meals, such as playing a game. This can help distract your teenager from the habits you want them to avoid.
  • Being positive. Praise them for achievements not related to food or weight. This will help take their mind off their condition while building their confidence.

Help yourself

Caring for a teenager with an eating issue can be very stressful. Though you're focusing most of your attention on your teenager, don't forget to look after yourself!

If you need help, don't hesitate to ask. Speak to your family and friends about your own situation and seek help from your GP if you need to. They can put you in touch with support groups with other parents, as well as giving you helpful resources.

Professional help

If you are concerned that your child has an unhealthy relationship with food or is showing signs of having an unhealthy body image speak to your GP.

The best way to get the help they need is through their GP, who may refer them to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for assessment and a plan for support and treatment.

Your teen can also self refer to the CAMHS Eating Disorder Service for Children and Young People, by calling 01372 206325.

Information from external websites

Action for children has a short article on body image and another on helping your teen become body confident.


Beat Eating Disorders information on supporting someone with an eating disorder has valuable resources, as does their information to help you and your teen understand eating disorders.


Childline has a section packed with helpful information for your teen about eating problems.


Family Lives have a helpful article on eating disorders (Family Lives) and an insightful article on getting help with eating disorders. They also have an informative article on body image.


The Mix has a whole section filled with information on body image and self esteem for your teen. You can also check out the section for your teen on eating disorders.


The NHS has information on eating disorders (NHS). You can also check out the NHS advice for parents on eating disorders and NHS advice on supporting someone with an eating disorder.


Young Minds have a page for parents on supporting your child with eating problems. The Young Minds page on body image, as well as on eating problems, on anorexia, and on bulimia are all highly useful as well.


Safe Space Health UK is a website for young people aged 11 - 14 in Surrey. It offers helpful information about emotional health, lifestyle choices, relationships, keeping safe, growing up and being okay with being different.

Struggling and need to talk?

For you

Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC) has a friends and family helpline (Wed, Thurs and Fri 9am - 1pm and 2pm - 5pm) Call 03000 11 12 13 (option 2).


Beat Eating Disorders has a free helpline that is open 365 days a year (9am - 3pm Mon - Fri and 4pm - 8pm weekends and Bank Holidays). Parents can call the helpline call 0808 8010677.


Family Lives have a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).


SupportLine provides a confidential helpline offering emotional support to any individual on any issue, including eating problems. It is open to any individual of any age. Call 01708 765200 or email info@supportline.org.uk


The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922


Young Minds has a free parents helpline. For detailed advice, emotional support and signposting about your teen call 0808 802 5544 (9:30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday)

For your teen

Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC) have a helpline your teen can call for support (Wed, Thurs and Fri 9am - 1pm and 2pm - 5pm) Call 03000 11 12 13 (option 1).


Beat Eating Disorders has a free helpline that is open 365 days a year (9am - 3pm Mon - Fri and 4pm - 8pm weekends and Bank Holidays). Your teen can call the Youthline call 08088010711.


Child and Family Health Surrey offer a text service called ChatHealth, a confidential school nurse messaging service for young people aged 11-19. Young people can contact their school nurse in confidence by text. The Chat Health text number is: 07507 329 951 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm).


All of the issues discussed are confidential unless a child's safety, or that of others, is at risk. The school nurses will always encourage young people to discuss issues with their parents or guardians.


Childline have a free and confidential helpline for children. You could encourage your child to call 0800 1111 if they need to speak to someone - open 7 days a week from 7.30am - 3.30am. Childline also have a 1-2-1 counsellor chat for children who don't want to speak on the phone.


The Mix has a free helpline for under 25s who need help but don't know where to turn. Your teen can call 0808 808 4994 (7 days a week from 3pm to 12am. You can also web chat 7 days a week from 3pm to 12am, however chats may not be connected after 11:15pm).


SupportLine provides a confidential helpline offering emotional support to any individual on any issue, including eating problems. It is open to any individual of any age. Call 01708 765200 or email info@supportline.org.uk

Useful videos on teenagers and eating issues

In this Young Minds video, Hope shares her journey.

View on YouTube

Childline has a number of informative videos including do I have an eating problem? and recovering from an eating disorder. They also have a video on body image called who you see in the mirror

The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!

Helpful tools and apps

Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC) has a parent and carer online community to connect you to others going through similar experiences. You might want to download their guide to understanding eating disorders.


Beat Eating Disorders have lots of online support for your teen - from web chat to peer support. They also have a guide on eating disorders for friends and family that you can download or print out.


Childline has loads of tools to help your teen cope if they feel low or overwhelmed. They might want to try the coping kit, or the mood journal or even the calm zone. There's loads more resources in this helpful toolbox. Why not suggest they download the Childline For Me App.


Kooth is a free online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people aged 11 - 18. Accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop 365 days a year on Monday to Friday from 12pm–10pm and Saturday and Sunday from 6pm until 10pm.
Your teen can sign up here


You might want to suggest your teen tries the MeeTwo App. it is free, and allows peer to peer support for 11-25 year olds in a forum monitored by trained adults. If your 14 year old posts a question, only other 14 year olds will see the post and be able to respond. Adults monitor questions and answers and hand the question to a counsellor if they feel the child needs more than peer support.

Download Meetwo from Google Play

Download MeeTwo from App Store


The Mix offers a Crisis Text Line for under 25s. Let your teen know if they can't cope and are worried about their feelings they can text THEMIX to 85258 for instant help. The service runs 24/7 and is free.


Reading Well list a number of books recommended by health experts on body image and eating disorders.


Young Minds provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis. All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors. Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes your teen is in immediate risk of harm, they may share their details with people who can provide support. Text YM to 85258.


Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.

Online parenting guides

Surrey residents get free access to three online guides that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts.

How to register

Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guides.

Access to the guides is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.

Community support, courses and local help

Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.

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Date published: 03 Mar 2021