National Eating Disorders Association

Whether in a sibling, friend, or parent, eating disorders can be frightening and stressful for loved ones to understand. When the loved one is a young child, the issue can become even more complicated. The goal of this section is to provide some basic information on eating disorders to help explain to young children what is happening to their friend or family member.

What to tell a young child?

This will depend on their age and where they are in their emotional, social, and cognitive development. There are no formal guidelines on what is best to tell a child and when, so use your best judgment and knowledge of the child.

It might be tempting to avoid saying something altogether with a very young child, since it can seem that they are unaware of the issue. However, children are often more observant than adults realize and frequently see what is going on, even if they cannot verbalize it. Acknowledging that something is going on with their loved one’s behavior can validate their emotions and help them feel more safe and secure.

Some brief statements that might help very young children understand an eating disorder in a friend or family member:

  • “Mom/Dad/Sibling has trouble eating properly. We are all working together to help him/her learn to eat better to get healthy. We all need food to help our bodies function properly.”
  • “Mom/Dad/Sibling gets very frightened and upset at mealtimes. THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT. We hope that this will get easier for them with treatment.”
  • “Having an eating problem can be very scary. It can also be scary when a parent/sibling has an eating problem. Do you have any questions about eating problems? Is there anything you would like to talk about?”
  • “Your parent’s/sibling’s eating problem is being helped by grown-ups and doctors. Your job is to be yourself.”
  • “Your parent/sibling is not choosing to act this way. This isn’t their fault. It’s not your fault. We’re all doing the best we can to help them get better.”

What to tell an older child?

Older children may have heard of eating disorders and be better able to understand the complexities of what is happening to their loved one. Psychologists recommend keeping the discussions brief and matterof-fact, while also giving the child a chance to express his/her emotions and concerns about their family member or friend.

Some Common Questions from Children

Children may have questions about eating disorders, just like adults do. Here are some common questions with some sample answers.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are illnesses that make somebody eat too much or too little for a long period of time. Lots of us might eat a little more one day and a little less the next. That’s perfectly normal. People with eating disorders do this day after day, and they can’t stop even though it’s making them sick. That’s why your mom/dad/sibling is seeing a doctor: to help get better.

Are eating disorders serious?

They can be. But most people with eating disorders do get better. Your mom/dad/sibling is working on getting well and is seeing a doctor to make sure they stay healthy.

Will I get an eating disorder?

I don’t know. I hope not. The best thing you can do to stay healthy is eat enough to keep growing and tell an adult if you start to get worried about food or what you weigh.

What causes an eating disorder?

No one knows for sure. What doctors do know is that people don’t choose to have eating disorders.

Will mom/dad/sibling have to go away to get better?

Many people with eating disorders can stay at home while they are working on getting better. Some people need extra help and may go to a special hospital to get better.

Do other people have this problem?

Yes—you and your family member are not alone. Lots of people also have eating problems and there are lots of good doctors out there who are helping them get well.