Feeling self-conscious, shy and awkward has always been a normal part of growing up. But, over the past decade or so, teenagers and children have become more acutely aware of – and subsequently unhappy with – their self-image.
It’s no coincidence that, during this shift, the number of eating disorders among teenagers and pre-teens has risen dramatically.
Contributing factors to this issue include skinny celebrities, a cultural obsession with dieting, airbrushed, Photoshopped (and underweight) models, and the popularity of social media sites – where filtered photographs and carefully-angled ‘selfies’ have become ten a penny. All of these are giving young people unrealistic expectations of what their own bodies should look like. And, as they strive to meet these unattainable ideals via unhealthy eating habits, many young people are causing themselves physical and psychological damage in the process – which is hugely worrying.

The facts

At the end of last year, NHS figures showed that the number of pre-teen children treated in hospital for eating disorders has tripled in four years, sadly proving that it’s no longer just teenagers who are affected. Official statistics show more than 6,500 children and teenagers were treated in hospital in 2010/11 for conditions such as anorexia, compared with 1,718, in 2007/8. ‘There is a toxic combination of pressures on children which is quite unrelenting and incessant; there is little escape,’ said Susan Ringwood, from Beat (www.b-eat.co.uk). ‘There is a lot of pressure to be perfect and to be slender, all over the internet so that we are getting body concerns from children of seven, eight and nine.
‘There’s the sexualisation of childhood; seven-year olds wanting a push-up bra. But there are other factors, too. Puberty kicks in younger now, so hormonal changes are affecting the brain as well as the body at a lower age, and that means that children are likely to feel self-conscious when they are younger.’

Potential causes

In addition to societal pressures, there are a number of other, often more complex reasons as to why a child or teenager may develop an eating disorder. According to the NHS (www.nhs.uk), these include:

  • Having a family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse
  • Being criticised for their eating habits, body shape or weight
  • Being overly concerned with being slim, particularly if combined with pressure to be slim from society or for a job (for example models, ballet dancers or athletes)
  • Certain characteristics, for example, having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder, low self-esteem or being a perfectionist
  • Particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse or the death of someone special
  • Difficult relationships with family members or friends
  • Stressful situations, for example problems at work, school, university

'Children can get an eating disorder as young as six years old. Especially when they're influenced by media images and sometimes self-loathing language of their peers. Look out for signs of self-doubt and low self-esteem. Maybe over exercising, showing signs offing a perfectionist and finding excuses not to eat.'

What to look for

There are different types of eating disorders, each with a variety of symptoms and signs….

A disorder that involves lowering food intake by skipping meals, cutting down the types and amounts of food eaten, and sometimes over-exercising, too. Physical symptoms of anorexia nervosa include, but are not limited to: severe weight loss; stomach pains; difficulty sleeping and tiredness; growth of downy hair all over the body (lanugo); periods stopping or not starting (amenorrhoea). Psychological symptoms include feeling irritable and moody, setting high standards and being a perfectionist, thinking thinks are either right or wrong (with no ‘in between’), and feeling fat when, in fact, a person is underweight.

Bulimia is more common than anorexia but is a less visible disorder, as those suffering with the illness usually remain an average body weight. However, this doesn’t mean it is any less serious. Typically, bulimia involves eating a large amount of food, making yourself sick or taking laxatives to get rid of the food – both of which are described by medical professionals as ‘purging’, although taking laxatives is particularly dangerous. Other ways of ‘making up’ for binge-eating might include cutting down on food or starving for a few days.
Physical symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa include: a sore throat; bad breath and mouth infections; irregular periods; dry or poor skin; puffy cheeks; dehydration, kidney and bowel problems. Psychological symptoms include: feeling emotional and depressed; feeling out of control; mood swings; being obsessed with dieting.

Binge eating involves eating large amounts of food in a short period of time and feel a lack of control during these binges, but – unlike someone with bulimia nervosa – you do not
try to get rid of the food. You may feel your eating is out of control, eat what you think of as an unusually large amount of food, eat much more quickly in these binges, eat until you are uncomfortably full, eat large amounts of food when you are not hungry or eat alone. You do this for similar reasons to those with bulimia.
Compulsive overeating involves ‘picking’ at food all day. Psychological symptoms include feeling depressed or inadequate because you cannot control your eating, which can lead to further eating and weight gain – it’s a vicious cycle.

As explained by www.b-eat.co.uk eating disorders are very complex, meaning there can be variations in the typical signs and symptoms, and that not all of the signs and symptoms will apply to all people.
Many people are diagnosed with EDNOS; disorders where you have some but not all of the diagnostic telltale signs for anorexia or bulimia. You may also be diagnosed with a ‘partial syndrome’ eating disorder if, for example, you are a woman with anorexia who has irregular or normal periods, or perhaps your bulimic episodes are very infrequent.


If it is not treated, an eating disorder can have a hugely negative impact on someone’s life, both personal and professional, and the physical effects can be fatal. While recovering from an eating disorder can take a long time, treatment is available. It usually involves monitoring a person’s physical health while helping him or her to deal with the underlying psychological causes. This may involve:

  • Using self-help manuals and books, often under guidance from a therapist
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – which focuses on changing how people think, which in turn will affect how they act
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy – a talking therapy that focuses on relationship-based issues
  • Dietary counselling
  • Psychodynamic therapy – this focuses on how a person’s personality and life experiences influence their current thoughts and behaviour
  • Family therapy
  • Medication


Images: Shutterstock

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