March 3


Detecting the Signs of Disordered Eating: A Guide for Parents

By NeuroHealth Arlington Heights

March 3, 2017

captureEating disorders are a complex and often misunderstood physical and psychological health issue. While eating disorders occur in both boys and girls, they are more common for females. Around 40% of teenage girls struggle with eating disorders, with many continuing to struggle into adulthood.

Early detection can help prevent health problems caused by eating disorders. With the right medical and psychological help, your child can recover.

Understanding the Early Signs

Unfortunately, misunderstanding the cause and types of eating disorders can lead to parents overlooking key signs. There are three types of eating disorders that normally affect teens.


This is perhaps the most commonly known eating disorder, often inaccurately used to describe people who seem very thin. Dangerous weight loss occurs when anorexic behaviors have continued for some time. Early signs might be:

  • Obsessing over body image. Your son or daughter might be overly concerned with how he or she appears. They may make disparaging comments about their appearance, especially about their weight.
  • Depression or withdrawing from social gatherings, especially ones that involve food. Your child may find ways to not be at the dinner table or to avoid celebrations like birthday parties that normally have plenty of food.
  • Fear over weight gain. Your son or daughter might still eat, but they will consciously avoid foods they perceive to be bad, even if the food is not in and of itself unhealthy. For example, your child might stop eating bananas for fear of becoming fat.
  • Fascination with fad dieting. Extreme diets are available through simple Internet searches. You might be concerned if your child suddenly decides to follow a restrictive diet that does not allow for normal caloric intake or eliminates entire food groups.
  • Ritualistic eating habits. Food avoidance becomes more and more pronounced as anorexia develops. To eat less, your child may take extra time preparing food in order to make it look like they are eating when they are not. Other rituals include dividing food into tiny portions, making sure no foods mix or touch, or taking extremely precise portions.

Later physical signs may begin to develop. You might notice your child has thinner, drier skin and less hair. Sleeping patterns may change as well.


A person struggling with bulimia follows a cycle of binging and purging. Bulimia is perhaps the most secretive and difficult to detect of all eating disorders, but there are early signs that all parents should be aware of. You can look for:

  • Intentional isolation after meals or parties. Those with bulimia feel compelled to purge after eating. They may seek refuge in the bathroom (often with the water running) or outdoors following meals. If your child does this consistently, it’s time to suspect bulimia.
  • Obsession with exercise. Exercise is a form of purging for bulimics. You child may suddenly adopt a rigid and extreme exercise plan. It’s not uncommon for bulimics to exercise more than once a day.
  • Missing money or food. Those with bulimia will frequently eat in secret, often eating foods that have high caloric value. Food may go missing from the fridge, or you may notice you are missing money that was then used to purchase food outside of the house.
  • Stored food in unexpected places. Your child may have food stored in a locker at school, under the bed, or at the back of the closet.

Bulimia can exist without extreme weight loss. It’s a misconception that people with eating disorders are thin.

Binge Eating

The above symptoms for bulimia can also indicate binge eating disorder, except in this case, the person does not often purge. Binging is extreme, taking in several thousand calories in one sitting. It may seem like your teen is gaining weight or has no self-control, but the issue is much deeper and requires counseling and medical intervention.

Understanding the Cause

The mind is very complex, but eating disorders never hinge on just a poor relationship with food. They are illnesses that have complex psychological roots, making them both a medical disease and a mental illness. It’s mistaken to believe that a person can recover with willpower and a good eating plan.

Usually eating disorders develop due to a need to find control. Some teens may descend into disordered eating as a result of being bullied, experiencing depression, or experiencing a major trauma, like losing a loved one or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Abuse can also increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. Low self-esteem can be a contributing factor.

If parents are aware of these risk factors, they can actively look for the development of disordered eating.

These issues need to be resolved through counseling before the eating disorder can be fully cured. Sometimes it helps if the whole family seeks counseling to learn how to properly support the recovering individual.

If you notice any combination of the above symptoms, you should seek professional counseling and medical services. For more questions on eating disorders, contact us at NeuroHealth Arlington Heights.

NeuroHealth Arlington Heights

About the author

For over 20 years, NeuroHealth Arlington Heights has been offering neuropsychological and psychological assessments and treatments for people of all ages. These assessments and treatments address Behavioral, Emotional, & Social Issues, Neurocognitive Functions, and Neurodevelopmental Growth.