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Supporting children and young people with binge eating disorder

Information for parents and carers to support children and young people with binge eating disorder.

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is an eating disorder characterised by strong urges to eat large portions of food in one go, often in secret, until one is uncomfortably full followed by feelings of guilt and upset.   To try to counter binges, an individual may restrict their food intake and, like all eating disorders, this unhealthy relationship with food can permeate into all areas of their life with feelings of shame and disgust contributing to a cycle of negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. As such, binge-eating disorder can also be viewed as a coping strategy or symptom for other psychological issues, such as anxiety or depression, and professional help is often required to overcome multiple difficulties or diagnoses. 

Signs that a child or young person may be affected by Binge Eating Disorder

Whilst eating disorders can affect people of all ages, Binge Eating Disorder typically presents in late adolescence or early twenties which may coincide with less formal mealtimes with your child as they become more independent and potentially move from the family home. 

Changes in behavior are noticeable earlier than physical changes and may include eating large amounts of food in a short time period, eating more rapidly than one normally would and eating till feeling uncomfortably full.  As a parent or carer, you may also notice your child trying to withdraw from eating with others, hoarding food and structuring their life around binges.  You may sense that your child’s self-confidence is decreasing and that they appear to be feeling low or anxious for sustained periods of time.

These are examples of behavioural traits for those with Binge Eating Disorder, however, if you are concerned it is important to seek out your GP’s help for an official diagnosis.

Common issues parents and carers may have to contend with

A person struggling with Binge Eating Disorder is usually good at hiding behaviours, making it hard for others to detect a problem. Parents and carers are likely to face issues regarding this. Since there is so much shame attached to these eating behaviours, it is highly likely that confrontation will only make things worse. It is important to gain your child’s trust and make them feel safe by being non-judgmental and listening to what they are trying to communicate.

For a medical diagnosis to be made, you will have to consult your GP and chart out further course of action. You can also encourage healthier eating habits ensuring you aren’t imposing your own will onto your child and shaming them for their eating behaviours.

How to support a child or young person with Binge Eating Disorder

Supporting a child or young person struggling with Binge Eating Disorder is not an easy task. There are several layers to the eating patterns, and it is more than just lacking self-control. Children are often ridiculed for lacking control and being careless while they engage in unhealthy eating behaviours. However, this is the exact opposite of helping. It is imperative to reassure your child by listening to them and assuring them that you are not going to judge, ridicule or shame them.

A common mistake parents and carers often make is to believe that scolding or punishing the child might help them stop. Whilst this approach is understandable it is unlikely to be effective and could makes things worse. As a parent or carer you should try to operate from the assumption your child may already experience a lot of shame and guilt, so language or actions which may be received as criticism, blame or ridicule may add to the guilt they are already experiencing.

Body image plays a huge role as well. Children and young people often feel they have to look a certain way in order to be accepted by their peers and the society at large. This unrealistic expectation of having a ‘perfect body’ along with the guilt emerging from unhealthy eating patterns, makes for a very difficult and overwhelming situation for the child. Being supportive and understanding of these issues and creating a safe space where your child can discuss how they are feeling with you can prove very beneficial to taking steps towards addressing their issues and taking steps towards healing. 

What to say to schools and colleges

Children and young people with Binge Eating Disorders often tend to eat in secret or alone because of embarrassment. They might also skip school and school activities due to fear of being teased or bullied about their appearance. There can also be name-calling and exclusion from group activities which can further add to their emotional stress.

As a parent or carer, you can start by informing the school or college about the difficulties faced by your child. Of course, it is up to you how much you and your child want to disclose. 

If you are aware of your child being bullied it is very important that you broach the topic with the school authorities and see to it that the bullying stops because it’ll only make things worse for your child’s mental wellbeing. You can also request the school to facilitate confidence-building activities and stress management techniques in the curriculum and promote healthier body image which will help not just your child but other children as well.

What to say to siblings

Siblings often feel left out due to the attention given to their sibling. It is important to give the siblings time at home where the focus is not on the eating disorder and give them the space to spend time with the family and ask questions about it.  

Where appropriate. Try to provide some age-appropriate information about Binge Eating Disorder so they understand. Instead of focusing on what to say, let them talk and see where the conversation goes. This way they might even ask some questions or disclose certain fears they have had so far. This will provide you an opportunity to know what is going on in their mind and how you can possibly help them deal with it better.  

All siblings argue and fight at times. There is a possibility that, in an argument, the sibling may feel they have said something which has caused the eating disorder. It is key to reassure them that eating disorders are complex and one comment will not have caused it. If they feel guilty, you could help them talk to their sibling about this, or even write a note to them.  

One thing to be careful of is that siblings may also struggle over their own weight and eating due to the environment at home. Discussing thoughts and emotions with them during this time is important. It may be that their parents or carers are not the easiest person for them to speak to, maybe an older friend, family member or counsellor may be appropriate.  

What to say to extended family

Talking to the extended family depends on how close they are to your child. It is up to you and your child what and how much you want to share and who you want to share it with but if relatives regularly visit it may be important for them to be aware. As with siblings, it is important to tell them to avoid comments about appearance, food and weight. With all this information, it is important to not scare them off and discuss that the more normal the environment the better for everyone.  

Support for parents and carers is important too, so if you feel you are struggling through this difficult time it may be good to speak to extended family. They can offer support for you, being someone to talk to who is outside of the situation.  You may also find support groups where you can share your experience openly with other parents and carers who have or are going through similar situation, which may help you talk openly without fear of shame or a lack of understanding.

Additional support for parents and carers

  • Beat – Advice if worried someone has an eating disorder