Children and young people are more at risk of developing eating disorders as they develop their self-image and learn about relationships with others. Children with disabilities such as speech, language and communication difficulties even more so. Eating disorders are illnesses where a person has an unhealthy relationship with food. Some common symptoms include restricting calorie intake; induced vomiting and purging of meals; eating large amounts than comfortable; or having low and negative feelings surrounding eating. The list is not exhaustive and eating disorder affect every child differently. If left untreated, eating disorders can cause long-term health and psychological difficulties.
Some children might find it difficult to express troubling feelings and thoughts. This can lead to attempts of trying to express this inner discomfort through eating habits.
Young people with disabilities and communication difficulties might develop skewed perceptions of food, eating and relationships with both through misunderstandings.
If going through an emotionally or psychologically challenging time or change, children might lose control over their eating habits whilst processing the new situation.
Already present swallowing problems (dysphagia) are likely to cause difficulties eating which could lead to eating disorders and food avoidance.
The causes of eating disorders are unknown but many medical professionals agree that it is a combination of biological, psychological and social influences. The reasons why a child might be self-conscious about their weight or uncomfortable eating could include:
Peer pressure or bullying
Social influences such as celebrities, social media and incorrect advice
Physical discomfort during food consumption
Mental health issues, for example negative feelings about themselves eating, mealtimes or certain foods.
Many treatments for eating disorders, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or family therapy, are reliant on speaking. Alongside the stress of acknowledging an issue, this can then be problematic and put more pressure on the young person.
Young people with potential eating disorders foremostly benefit from support from their close family and friends. It is important to create a safe, understanding environment whenever addressing the topic. Children with communication difficulties need extra understanding, patience and reassurance as they express their feelings and thoughts.
Talking with your child is vital in helping work through the condition. Focussing on the emotions rather than physical appearances and habits can help get to the source of the eating disorder and avoid adding extra tension. When speaking, try to use ‘I’ statements and being patient such as “I am worried about that you are not enough.” If it helps, writing notes before talking can help to stay unbiased and avoid making the conversation sound like accusations of your child’s wrongdoings.
Another suggestion is to engage your child in the preparation of meals. This could mean letting them choose which foods they would like to eat and in what environment they would prefer to eat. You could also plan activities your child finds fun after mealtimes to change the focus of attention.
Patience is the most important aspect in supporting your child through the illness. It is very possible that the journey will take consistent communication and times when it seems like no progress is being made. There are many reasons a young person might develop unhealthy relationships with food, and they are all individual to their experiences. By being patient, you provide assurance that your child is still loved and not defined by the disorder.
It is advised to get specialist help as more tailored support can be offered based on your child’s personal situation. You could speak with your speech and language therapist about your concerns or contact other organisations. Some suggested sources are