In trying to understand why a child may not be eating enough, ask yourself the following:
- Have they recently experienced bereavement or divorce?
- Have they experienced any trauma?
- Have they been bullied; called 'fat' or other things?
- Do they come from a family where there is an unusual emphasis on eating?
- Do they come from a home where there is poor role modelling?
- Are the changed eating behaviours happening is certain situations?
- What, if any, appear to be the adverse effects of their eating behaviour on the people around them?
- What, if any, appear to be the benefits (to them) of their behaviour in terms of the effect on others?
THINK ABOUT YOURSELF
Attempting to respond helpfully to a child or adolescent who is not eating can evoke very strong feelings in the helper; from feelings of helplessness to intense frustration.
On the other hand, successful attempts in situations where others appear to be failing can make the helper feel very important or even indispensable. Such feelings can make a helper feel good about themselves but may result in them becoming over-involved. There is such a thing as being too well ‘tuned in’ to what a child or young person is experiencing in relation to their attitude to eating. When this happens there is a danger that the helper loses their ability to stand back and make good decisions which are in the best interests of the child.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
- Don’t react angrily to a child/adolescent who won’t eat.
- Don’t punish a child/adolescent for not eating.
- Don’t act in such a way that suggests that you are anxious or panicky – remain calm.
- Don’t try to force them to eat.
- Don’t get into conversation about how "fat" or "thin" people are, or about whether this is a "good" or "bad" thing.
- Don’t talk about your own difficulties with eating or drinking.
What can you do as a parent/carer?
THE KEY IS TO DISCOVER WHETHER:
- The child/adolescent has temporarily lost their appetite due to physical illness.
- The child/adolescent has temporarily lost their appetite because they are unhappy of experiencing other strong emotions.
- The child/adolescent is ‘dieting’ or attempting to eat more healthily as part of a passing phase. This is well within normal behaviour for adolescents (particularly girls). They will often be inconsistent in their dieting attempts.
- The child/adolescent has developed a pattern of unhealthily restrictive eating together with an obsessive attitude.
YOU CAN FIND OUT BY DOING THE FOLLOWING:
- Calmly and discretely arrange to speak to the child/adolescent on their own.
- In a caring and non-judgemental way, share with them what you have observed about their eating and drinking behaviour, and ask them for an explanation of what you’ve noticed.
- If you have a responsibility for providing them with food, find out if they would eat more if alternative food was provided.
- Explain that you have concerns that what you have observed to be restrictive eating may indicate that they are unhappy or worried.
- Provide an opportunity for the child/adolescent to talk privately and confidentially to you about their concerns.
When to consider asking for more specialist help
CONSIDER SEEKING HELP:
If you have concerns that a pattern of restrictive eating has become established which goes beyond ‘normal’ dieting and the child/adolescent is developing an obsessive attitude towards food and weight loss, whilst appearing to become less healthy as a result.
If you are given an indication that the child/adolescent’s change of eating habits has been in response to a serious trauma.
Further support, advice and self-help
Young Minds gives free, relevant, practical information about a range of mental health issues in children and young people. It has information about feelings and symptoms, conditions and looking after yourself. It also has some specific information about self-harm and what to do about self-harm.
Minded is a free educational resource on children and young people’s mental health for adults, but can also be really useful for teenagers. It covers lot of topics.
Relate gives specific advice for different types of worries and problems aimed at young people.