What does an eating disorder look like?

Home » Treatment & Support » Child and Teen Services

Symptoms and Treatment for Eating Disorders in Children and Teens


“What if she’s just getting in shape?”
 “Is it normal for boys to lose so much weight playing sports?”
“Should nine-year olds be losing their appetite?”


These are some of the questions parents ask when faced with the possibility of their child having an eating disorder. That you’re here means your instincts have led you to ask the most important ones: “What does it look like, and what can I do to help?”

It can be hard to recognize eating disorders in teens or children, especially because they affect children of all ages and sizes and can look a little different in each one. You can’t tell just by looking at someone if they have an eating disorder or not – from athletic high school boys to cheery elementary school girls, anyone is susceptible.

If your son or daughter has displayed any of the following behaviors, they may be struggling with an eating disorder or be at high risk of developing one:

  • Losing weight (or not gaining weight during times of expected growth)
  • Rejecting his or her favorite foods
  • Expressing anxiety around food and eating
  • Spending an unusual amount of time in the bathroom or exercising
  • Counting calories, tracking nutritional content and/or keeping food diaries
  • Avoiding food and social mealtimes, missing out on activities with friends or family

More than 50% of adolescent girls and 33% of adolescent boys have used unhealthy weight control behaviors. It’s vital that parents pay close attention to any unexplained changes in growth and development, or significant changes in eating patterns and behavior. It’s not uncommon for eating disorders to go undetected, which is why it is so important to know the red flags that warrant further assessment, and treatment, by a trained medical professional. Eating disorders can vary from child to child and may, or may not, be accompanied by weight changes and negative body image. Download our PDF of additional signs and symptoms of eating disorders in children here.

Specialized Care at The Center for Eating Disorders

In recent years we’ve observed an increase in the number of children and young teens with eating disorders. In response, the Center has expanded its specialized programming for this age group by opening a new, fully renovated unit catering specifically to adolescents and children aged 15 and under as well as their families.

Principles of Family-Based Treatment (FBT), a model of outpatient therapy encouraging parents to play an active role in their child’s recovery, are present in all levels of care at the Center for Eating Disorders. The Center’s specialized Child and Adolescent programming includes:

• Child & Adolescent Inpatient Unit: 24-hour/day hospitalization allows for around the clock care and treatment for children and teens in a safe and supportive recovery-focused environment

• Child & Adolescent Partial Hospital Program: 12-hour/day programming includes twice-weekly family therapy, daily group therapies and three supervised, structured meals each day.

• Comprehensive Child & Adolescent Outpatient Services provided by specially trained psychiatrists and certified FBT Therapists in our outpatient offices

Learn more about The Center's specialized program for children and teens, or take a tour of our facility.

We offer numerous ways for parents, partners, siblings and other relatives to be involved in a loved one’s recovery, with family therapy sessions, Collaborative Care workshops, and support groups. Parents are active participants in the development of an aftercare plan for when their child returns home, working with dieticians to create healthy meal plans, and communicating with the affected child’s psychiatrist to monitor treatment progress and recommendations.

Causes, Treatments and Outcomes

Eating disorders are complex illnesses that are primarily biologically determined. Research has shown that 50%-80% of a person’s risk for developing an eating disorder is due to genetics, and a combination of other contributing factors can set the stage for a genetically vulnerable individual to develop eating disordered behaviors. Parents don’t cause eating disorders, but they are an important part of the recovery process.

Our philosophy and programs are guided by research regarding therapies that have positive outcomes for patients. These evidence-based treatments for eating disorders include Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Family-Based Treatment. The most important part of recovery is seeking help early in the onset of the illness, especially in the case of young children and teens. Research has shown that seeking help for an eating disorder within the first 1-3 years of onset of illness can significantly impact prognosis and improve chances for recovery.

What About School?

It’s often necessary to prioritize treatment above other pursuits such as extracurricular activities, sports teams and even school. We know getting behind in schoolwork can be another source of anxiety for children and parents, so we set aside time in the treatment schedule for qualified instructors from the Baltimore County Home and Hospital Teachers to provide educational instruction using books and assignments from the patient’s school.

Parents often wonder when to stop hoping it goes away, and start taking action. That time is now.  

Call 410-938-5252 to speak with a member of our clinical team today.  Free and confidential phone assessments are provided to assist you in identifying treatment options and helpful resources.   

To learn more about treatment and support at The Center for Eating Disorders, please visit the pages below.

Get An Expert Opinion

Contact a clinician at The Center for Eating Disorders to discuss possible symptoms, as well as our specialized treatment programs.

Contact Preference
Certification *

Is An Eating Disorder Affecting Your Life?
See For Yourself.

pie-chart.jpg

We've adapted this cognitive-behavioral exercise to illustrate how an eating disorder may be impacting your life or the life of a friend or loved one. Take a few minutes to complete this eye-opening activity.

Begin the Exercise
   

Thoughts and feelings regarding eating, food, body shape and weight can significantly impact the way people feel about themselves. In the midst of an eating disorder, these areas can become overly influential and may take up a lot of time and energy in a person’s life. Our interactive tool provides individuals and family members an opportunity to take a personalized look at these impacts.

Before you begin, consider the following questions:

  • How much do each of the following elements influence how you feel about yourself?
  • How much time do you spend thinking about or engaging in the following areas each day?
  • Answering honestly, how would you measure their value and importance to your self worth?

Now, using percentages, rate the relative importance of each of the following areas in your life, then click "Next":

%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%

This exercise is based on a therapeutic tool developed by Christopher G. Fairburn in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders (2008) and has been adapted as an online exercise for the purpose of education and self-reflection.

A Healthy, Balanced Lifestyle:

Now that you've completed your personal chart, take a look at an example of an individual who is generally healthy and does not struggle with eating or weight problems. They might have a lifestyle that looks like this, where sources of self-evaluation and life priorities are balanced and spread across a wide variety of areas. Take a look, and then click "Next" for a side-by-side comparison.

%
%
%
%
%
%

This exercise is based on a therapeutic tool developed by Christopher G. Fairburn in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders (2008) and has been adapted as an online exercise for the purpose of education and self-reflection.

These images are not a diagnostic tool but can help to shed light on the day-to-day impacts of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are progressive illnesses that affect all areas of life, gradually interfering more and more with personal commitments, priorities and overall enjoyment in life.

What do you notice about how daily life has changed since problems with eating began, or worsened, for you or a loved one? How have days shifted to accommodate or enable the illness? Even when you're engaged in normal activities, do you find yourself distracted or exhausted by thoughts of food and weight? If so, you or your family member may be suffering from an eating disorder.

This exercise is based on a therapeutic tool developed by Christopher G. Fairburn in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders (2008) and has been adapted as an online exercise for the purpose of education and self-reflection.

Get Help

The Center offers a full range of treatment options and supportive resources to meet your recovery needs. The sooner you call, the sooner you can begin to heal.

410-938-5252

Get An Expert Opinion

Contact a clinician at The Center for Eating Disorders to discuss possible symptoms, as well as our specialized treatment programs.

Contact Preference
Certification *