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Children's health

29th Feb 2024

Eating disorders in young people are on the rise, an expert shares some early indicators

Jody Coffey


**Trigger Warning: This article discusses eating disorders in detail**

This week is Eating Disorder Awareness Week

The term ‘eating disorder’ refers to a complex, potentially life-threatening condition, characterised by severe disturbances in eating behaviours.

An estimated 188,895 people in Ireland will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives, making education and awareness around mental health illnesses necessary in our society.

Sadly, a percentage of that number includes young people, with Bodywhys – The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland seeing a rise in the number of those seeking their services within the younger generation.

Signs to look out for

Due to the secretive nature of eating disorders, it is not always possible to identify the signs that may indicate an eating disorder is present or is developing.

Harriet Parsons, Training and Development Manager at Bodywhys tells HerFamily that while there are many aspects to eating disorders, there are a few signs that parents should be on the lookout for.

“Being very strict about exercise or over-exercising things like that. Restricting foods, dieting, and skipping meals, or going long periods of time without eating” Harriet explains.

A common misconception about eating disorders is that it’s just about food and body

Psychological and emotional signs may also manifest in a young person who has an eating disorder or is developing one.

“You might see a change in their personalities. They might become more introverted and refrain from interacting with their peers and spending more time on their own,” Harriet says.

She also says that if a young person seems to have entered any kind of ‘perfectionist mode’ when it comes to school or college work, it may be another indicator to be aware of.

Social Media

In 2021, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a study that linked widespread use of social media among children and teenagers to increased body dissatisfaction, and a higher drive for thinness, which makes young users more vulnerable to eating disorders.

In 2023, the same journal published another study that deemed excessive or obsessive social media as a potential risk factor for body image dissatisfaction and associated eating disorders.

Online, thinness can often be glorified, unrealistic body standards are formed, and body shaming runs rampant.

Harriet acknowledges that parents aren’t always able to control social media use or activity unless their child is very young, but she suggests some ways they can monitor the content they’re exposed to.

“Start from a place of trust and open communication, so that parents talk to their young people about the stuff they’re consuming online, the stuff they’re watching, what they’re drawn to.

“The ads often give an indication of where their interests lie because obviously the ads are targeted with things that people spend more time on.

“Being able to have a conversation about it, not being dogmatic about it, but being able to have a conversation about like, ‘Is there certain content that makes you feel better about yourself? Or that make you feel worse about yourself? Or what is it about that content that makes you want to watch it?”

How to approach the subject with a young person

If a parent suspects that their child might have an eating disorder or may be at risk of developing one, Harriet says they should research as much as possible before entering into a conversation about it.

With that, she says parents should fully accept them as they are now and manage expectations about the conversations.

“The most important idea that you can kind of take on board is the idea that if a person is developing or has developed an eating disorder because it’s a way of coping.

“We think from the outside looking in that it’s a problem, but with the person it’s functioning for them in some way. It’s helping them in some way.

“So if you think of the eating problem as a coping mechanism, then you can understand why somebody might not readily want to let it go or may feel resistant if somebody tries to talk to them about it.”

Harriet also says parents should be very clear in their minds as to why they’re worried: “Be concrete about them, rather than “wishy-washy.”

She says that the goal of the conversation should not be to get them to ‘agree’ or try to ‘fix them’, instead, the parent should communicate their worries based on their observations.

The first step towards recovery is being able to acknowledge that there’s a problem, so by approaching someone you are allowing them to take that first step, though they may not be ready to for some time, which is normal.

More information on how to approach a person about the topic in a respectful and non-judgemental manner can be found here.

Bodywhys online psychoeducation PiLaR programme for family members, parents, and carers starts on Wednesday, March 6th, 2024, running from 7 pm – 9 pm. To book a free place, please contact Christopher via


Eating Disorder Awareness Week events can be found here.

Bodywhys Online Support Groups, for men, students, young people, and adults are available here.

Email support and a listening ear can be accessed via

Bodywhys Helpline Number: 01 2107906  


Get involved this Eating Disorders Awareness Week, you can find all the details on the Bodywhys website and social media platforms.