First Steps: Eating Disorders in Children

Learning that your child struggles with an eating disorder can be shocking and overwhelming. Explore some of the initial causes and risks associated with eating disorders. Then, learn more about how negative thought patterns lead to a vicious cycle of pain, loneliness and worry. Finally, see how you can positively impact your child’s mentality and encourage them to form a lasting bond.

In This Series:

When most people think of eating disorders, teenagers and adults come to mind. However, eating disorders affect younger children as well. In recent years, growing rates of eating disorders in children of all ages reinforces an urgent need for parents to provide support and help for their children who struggle with these situations. 

Causes and Risks of Eating Disorders in Children

In most situations, there isn’t a clear-cut reason why an eating disorder might develop. The tendencies surrounding eating disorders can be passed down genetically, so if a parent or close relative struggles with an eating disorder there is sometimes a greater risk for one to develop in their children or relatives.

In some unique cases, children or teenagers struggling with eating disorders previously engaged in gradually intensifying diets or drastic habits of dieting. For many teenagers, dieting involves a fine line centered on the mentality of hope of physical changes to create lasting happiness.

In a later section of this article series, we’ll explore some of the key warning signs of eating disorders. Within conversations about eating disorders in children, a common theme will reoccur. Early detection and intervention are integral steps in treating eating disorders in children. Providing your child with support, encouragement, and professional help is necessary in maintaining a positive lifestyle and outlook in the midst of an eating disorder. 

As mentioned earlier, there’s no universal reason for the development of eating disorders in children. Yet, there are a few connective similarities across the varying eating disorders. Let’s explore some of the negative thought patterns that contribute to the proliferation of eating disorders in children: 

Negative Thought Patterns

For kids struggling with eating disorders, negative thoughts often resemble a snowball slowly rolling down a hill. Similar to how the snowball gradually grows larger and picks up speed, so too do our children’s negative thoughts. As more and more negative thoughts build, the stress, frustration, and worry mount until there’s an uncontrollable amount of negative thoughts rolling around in their minds. 

With eating disorders, these negative thoughts can enter from a variety of sources. Below are a only a few of the areas of life that might present negative thought patters for children.  


There are multiple dynamics with exercise when it comes to eating disorders. For some children, there can be an over-prioritization of exercise, which leads to an idolization of their body and compulsive behaviors. In other situations, exercise can be negatively approached to the point where children avoid physical activity at all costs. Both of these perspectives often neglect viewing exercise as something that is enjoyable and beneficial for health and community. 


Diet and nutrition are often the first place many turn in discussions involving eating disorders in children. Many young children and teens focus on eating foods that are low in fat and sugar. In extreme situations, this can lead people to eliminate all fat from their diet. Unfortunately, this can lead to the thinking that all fat is bad — or even that fat people are lazy and bad.

In conversations with your kids emphasize some of these ideas about food. Help your children realize that it’s not about labelling foods as “good” or “bad.” Rather, the primary focus with dieting should be learning how to eat in moderation. 

Preteens and Puberty

The teenage years provide a host of changes to our children’s minds, decisions, and most noticeably, their bodies. An integral part of the maturation process includes puberty. For both boys and girls, puberty inadvertently provokes negative thought patterns focusing on body image and dieting. For example, some teenagers might experience their bodies growing more chubby as a natural part of maturing. In other cases, a teenager might fail to add any muscle as their metabolism increases. It’s common for teenagers to fail to see their value in any other terms apart from physical appearance.

To make situations worse, many teens feel that they are trophies to their parents. The positive thought pattern connected to their identity as a God’s uniquely designed treasure is virtually absent.  For teens who struggle with eating disorders, there’s often a strong correlation with  identities tied to their performance and appearance instead of their intrinsic worth and gifts. 


Athletics present a critical environment where eating disorders are unfortunately overlooked or hidden. At times, young athletes often practice unhealthy dieting habits in order to meet the standards for their sports. With performance and appearance driving a fierce competitive environment, children tend to hide or ignore eating disorders in favor of their athletic involvement. As children enter into high school where competition and comparison continue to grow, cuts in Junior Varsity and Varsity decisions unfortunately create more opportunities for negative thought patterns to impact children. 

The Eating Disorder Cycle

Children struggling with eating disorders often feel like there is no way out. Due in large part to negative thinking patterns, a vicious cycle of loneliness and addiction ensnares young children and teens. While each situation involving eating disorders in children is unique and specific, there are some overarching similarities in the eating disorder cycle. 

  1. Our children search for love, acceptance and approval to increase their feelings of worthiness.
  2. Teens have their own perception of how this need is satisfactorily met. When their need for love, acceptance and approval is not met in a manner that satisfies their perceptions, feelings of inadequacy may lead to low self-esteem.
  3. These negative feelings can cause extreme loneliness and pain.
  4. Eating disorder behavior numbs the pain temporarily.
  5. This addictive and obsessive behavior generally results in severe consequences.
  6. Guilt and shame over the consequences can be overwhelming for a teen.
  7. Often, this shame becomes a powerful feeling of self-hatred, which further distorts the teen’s perception of his or her worth and identity.

Then, the cycle begins again. The key to the recovery process begins with professional help, which intervenes in this cycle, addresses the faulty beliefs and perceptions and helps create a more accurate and kinder view of self.

Final Thoughts on Eating Disorders in Children

The goal is to help our teens see themselves through the eyes of God and to accept the gift of grace and forgiveness that is available in salvation through Jesus Christ. If you’re concerned that your teenager may be at risk, read on. Through solid facts and real-life stories, you’ll find direction and hope for families threatened by eating disorders.


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