There’s a harmful misconception that eating disorders of all types are a female illness. Subsequently, the early onset of eating disorders in pre-teen boys is often overlooked and underdiagnosed, and many boys are left untreated.
The reality is that children who show patterns of disordered eating in their early years are more prone to develop a diagnosis later in life.
Given the critical role parents and caregivers play in the diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders, family psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist, Fiona Yassin, is urging parents to educate themselves on the warning signs in pre-teen boys and challenge gender stereotypes to ensure boys get the support they need.
10 early signs of eating disorders in pre-teen boys
Yassin, the founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic, a specialist in trauma treatment, eating disorders, mental health and addiction treatment for teenagers, young adults and families, said: “It’s important to recognise that the signs and symptoms of disordered eating in pre-teen boys are markedly different to those in older boys and men.
“Some of the signs can be subtle because children who have an eating disorder are not necessarily focused on their image or weight – eating disorders are often very little about the actual food on the plate, instead they are disorders rooted in trauma, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.”
Yassin continued: “Boys can develop problems with food for a variety of reasons. It can start as a coping mechanism or as a tactic to feel in control. The concern is that these smaller habits could lead to them introducing more prohibiting patterns of eating and extreme behaviours. It’s really important for parents to understand that it’s impossible to know if their child has an eating disorder by how much they weigh.”
Yassin shares 10 early signs of eating disorders parents should look out for in pre-teen boys:
- Avoiding sweet foods or believing sweet foods are “bad” for them
- Aversion to tastes or textures
- Introducing rules around what types of foods they eat and how they eat them
- Fear of tummy aches and excessive bowel movements
- Chewing their food excessively
- Eating their food in a particular colour order
- Hiding or hoarding food
- Wanting to eat alone
- Worrying about body image and the way they look
- Showing an interest in cooking but not wanting to eat the food
How the language we use can exacerbate the early stages of an eating disorder
“A big part of parenting revolves around the words and the language we use to teach and talk to our children. Even though we’re trying to be helpful there are a number of common phrases used at mealtimes that, despite our best intentions, can be damaging,” said Yassin.
“Overly praising a boy for choosing to eat vegetables over cake, for example, can reinforce unhealthy eating behaviours – it’s important there is balance and sweet food is not positioned as a treat or reward.
“Avoid using phrases such as, “you’re such a picky eater”, “clean your plate” and “eat it up or you won’t grow big and strong”. These sentiments may cause a child to feel a sense of failure. Plus, the words ‘big’ and ‘strong’ have male connotations and may further emphasise the outdated and invalid assumption of how boys should act and what they should look like.”
Yassin continued: “From a very young age, children look up to their parents and mimic many of their words and actions subconsciously. Up to about the age of 12, you have control over your child’s environment, so it’s important to be a good role model for eating. A child who experiences a parent modelling behaviour towards food, such as a distaste or dieting, may copy this. These smaller habits could lead to boys introducing more prohibiting patterns of eating.”
Why gender stereotyping is a barrier to diagnosis and treatment for boys
One in four of the 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder are thought to be men. But a new study by eating disorder charity, Beat, found that over half of men have never had treatment for their eating disorder and 1 in 3 have never tried to get treatment.
Gender stereotyping can make it difficult for boys to access the treatment they need.
Yassin said: “There’s an inevitable shame that comes with boys having a ‘girls’ illness. This shame can make it hard for boys to seek help, and for parents to seek the support their child needs.
“The definition of what we stereotypically expect our boys and girls to start at a very early age, for example, boys are often perceived as ‘big’ and ‘strong’ and girls as ‘pretty’ and ‘little’. There is also an unspoken rule in many families that boys should not show emotion or talk about body image, as this is often seen as the ‘girls’ domain. Ultimately, this can prevent boys from talking about their emotions, thoughts and feelings and, therefore, accessing help.
“Body image concerns are rising amongst boys – from an early age, they are conditioned to conform to a certain body type, just as girls are. The stereotypical attractive man has long been considered as someone who is tall, lean and has defined muscles – although it’s important to note that this changes across cultures. From a young age, boys will see it as a slur to have a smaller body shape or be a smaller size.”
How can parents address suspected disordered eating in children?
Yassin said: “Hospitalisations for male eating disorders are increasing and that’s been a continual trend since the 90s. There are two primary reasons for this – firstly, eating disorders are becoming more prevalent, with more boys challenged by eating disorder behaviours, and secondly, when boys do get the support they need, their eating disorder is quite often longstanding, severe, and therefore more difficult to treat.
“Children who show patterns of disordered eating in their early years are more prone to develop a diagnosis later in life. With that in mind, if you believe your young person is suffering from an eating disorder or a related disorder, seek help from your GP immediately. Such disorders often require the assistance of a psychiatrist and mental health team.”