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My child is too young to have an eating disorder

My child is too young to have an eating disorder

Colleen called me in tears because her daughter Raleigh is eight years old and Colleen says “She’s too young to have an eating disorder! I can’t believe it.” I totally understand. It’s hard to believe that young kids can have an eating disorder, but in fact disordered eating can start even younger. Eating and feeding disturbances affect about 19.8% of kids ages 11-17, but some treatment programs for eating disorders start as young as age 5.  

1. Assess the behaviors

The first thing you want to do is assess your child’s eating disorder behaviors. Most people jump to conclusions about which eating disorder their child has, but it helps to review various eating disorder behaviors and consider whether they are involved in your child’s condition. 

Emotional Regulation Worksheets

Give your child the best tools to grow more confident, calm and resilient so they can feel better, fast!

  • Self-Esteem
  • Self-Regulation
  • Mindfulness
  • Calming strategies


Most eating disorders begin with restriction. There are three main reasons why kids restrict food: 

  • Highly sensitive to taste, texture, and other sensory feedback and/or how their body feels when they eat, for example, fullness, hunger, and nausea can be uncomfortable and lead to restriction. This sensitivity makes eating more stressful than it is for a less-sensitive child. 
  • Negative food-based experiences. If your child has experienced a recent stomach flu including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, or constipation, they may have developed an aversion to eating for fear their symptoms will return. 
  • Weight-loss goals. One of the biggest culprits of eating disorders is weight stigma and a fear of getting fat. 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner, and 81% of 10-year-old children are afraid of being fat. This can lead your child to restrict their food in an attempt to lose weight.  

Binge eating

When a body is restricted, it tends to crave food. Binge eating is often a response to a sense of being restricted. There are three main drivers of binge eating: 

  • Child-led food restriction. When a child restricts their food for any of the reasons listed above, they will become fixated on food and are likely to binge eat. 
  • Parent-led food restriction. When a parent restricts the type and quantity of food available to a child, particularly sweets and carbs, the child is more likely to binge eat. 
  • Chaotic eating. If a child does not eat regularly and enough food throughout the day they are more likely to binge eat when food is available.


There are two main reasons kids purge: 

  • Stomach discomfort. If a child binge eats, they may feel uncomfortable and over-full. This may lead them to induce vomiting in order to feel better. 
  • Fear of weight gain. If a child is afraid of gaining weight, they may induce vomiting in an attempt to rid themselves of food ingested during a binge eating episode. 

Kids may also over-exercise. Typically girls will attempt to get smaller (look like a Barbie™), but boys may try to gain muscle mass (look like a superhero). They may also use body checking as a compulsive behavior. This includes looking at their body, measuring and pinching their body, and asking parents for feedback and reassurance about their body’s appearance. 

2. Assess the circumstances

Once you have an idea of which eating disorder behaviors are active and why they are there, consider any circumstances that may be contributing to the eating disorder.


Autism, ADHD

Undiagnosed and under-managed autism and ADHD can result in eating disorder behaviors. Kids who have autism and ADHD tend to be highly sensitive to their five senses as well as their internal sensations like digestion. If your child has been diagnosed with either or both, you should evaluate their treatment and symptoms and get those under control as best you can. If you have ever suspected your child might have autism or ADHD, consider getting an evaluation. There is a lot of stigma about both of these disorders, but they can be managed, and doing so can transform a child’s life. Keep in mind that females are probably just as likely to have autism and ADHD but are much less likely to be tested or diagnosed.

Anxiety, PTSD, OCD

When a child has anxiety, PTSD, or OCD, they are much more likely to have eating disorder symptoms. If your child has been diagnosed, then please check with their therapist and/or psychiatrist to ensure they are being adequately treated for these conditions. If your child has not been diagnosed but you suspect they may have a diagnosable disorder, you can get them evaluated. Not addressing these underlying factors means the eating disorder symptoms will be harder to manage.

Life events

Eating disorder behaviors are much more likely to occur when there are stressful life events. These include divorce and remarriage, job loss, financial problems, moving, changing schools, body changes like early puberty, and a major accident or natural disaster. If your family has been going through transitions or having a hard time, that doesn’t mean it’s your fault that your child has an eating disorder, but it is likely a sign that your child needs support in managing the experience.  


If your child is being bullied about their weight, they are much more likely to attempt to lose weight. Both weight-based bullying and intentional weight loss are major risk factors for eating disorders. Weight-based bullying is very common. Unfortunately, it happens in schools, sports teams, and very often at home. Even gentle teasing by parents, siblings, and extended family members about weight can have serious consequences since we live in a deeply fatphobic culture. Consider this carefully in case you need to make some changes in your own behavior when it comes to weight. Most of us are unaware of weight stigma and how it shapes our behavior. Your child’s eating disorder is a great time to start understanding the dangers of weight stigma.

3. Find treatment

Regardless of the specific behavior and conditions, your child needs treatment for their eating disorder. There are three types of treatment to consider. 

Child-based treatment

Your child will need treatment from a team, most likely including a therapist, registered dietitian, pediatrician, and possibly a psychiatrist. These professionals can work with your child to monitor their health and determine the appropriate treatment. 

Parent-based treatment

Parent-based treatment is highly effective for childhood mental disorders. Parents are never the cause of an eating disorder, and yet parental behavior and beliefs can create an environment in which eating disorders either thrive or your child recovers. Working with an eating-disorder-trained therapist, RD, or coach can help you put a plan in place for improving your child’s home environment to optimize recovery.

Family-Based Treatment

An effective treatment for eating disorders is Family Based Treatment (FBT). This is when the parents take full responsibility for weight restoration and feeding their child. You can do FBT with the help of a specially-trained therapist. You can also work with an FBT-informed RD or coach who can guide you in a less formal approach.

Parent Scripts For Eating Disorder Recovery

Use these scripts:

  • At the dinner table when behavior is getting out of control
  • When you need to set boundaries – fast!
  • After something happened so you can calmly review the triggers and events

4. Make some changes

Regardless of how you approach treatment, there are three essential steps you should take at home to support eating disorder recovery:

Structure feeding

It’s best if parents provide a structured feeding environment. Many families don’t eat together and it’s hard to manage everyone’s schedules. However, when parents are in charge of feeding their kids, kids do better across almost all measurements of health, including eating disorders. Learn about the Ellyn Satter method of feeding kids and get the support you need to make this happen.

Reduce household stress

All families face stressful events, but when families are chronically stressed it impacts everyone’s health. Seek guidance and advice from a therapist or coach who can help you reduce household stress levels. While you can’t change circumstances like divorce and financial strain, you can change the experience of feeling stressed by learning and teaching your child emotional regulation skills.

Respond to food and body anxiety

Most eating disorder behaviors are a response to anxiety. Learn to recognize your child’s signs of anxiety and respond effectively. Most parents either ignore or try to overcome anxiety with reassurance, but neither of these responses actually reduces childhood anxiety, and they may even make it worse. Learn about the SPACE method of responding to kids’ anxiety more effectively.

Having a young child with an eating disorder is not what Colleen thought she would be facing, but she took it one step at a time, and Raleigh is already making progress in her recovery. “I’m so happy to see glimpses of my happy little girl again,” says Colleen.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to change the conversation about eating disorders and empower people to recover.  She’s the founder of, an online resource supporting parents who have kids with eating disorders, and a Parent Coach who helps parents supercharge their kid’s eating disorder recovery.

Ginny has been researching and writing about eating disorders since 2016. She incorporates the principles of neurobiology and attachment parenting with a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach to health and recovery.

Ginny’s most recent project is Recovery, a newsletter for deeply feeling people in recovery from diet culture, negative body image, and eating disorders.

See Our Guide For Parenting a Young Child With An Eating Disorder

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