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Published On: Sep 8, 2020|Categories: Teens & Children|

It’s back-to-school season. For many children and teens, this is an exciting time of year that is also mixed with some stress. For students who are predisposed to an eating disorder, going back to school can trigger unhealthy eating habits.

Causes of eating disorders

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with many causes that researchers are only starting to understand. Genetics, environment and stressful life experiences have been identified as risk factors.

Here are some back-to-school triggers that may contribute to the development of an eating disorder.

Academic pressure

The pressure to succeed at school and earn good grades can cause a great amount of stress for kids and teens. It can become too much to handle without effective coping skills. Unfortunately, some adolescents turn to unhealthy behaviors to help them cope. This can include disordered eating behaviors like restricting food intake, bingeing on large amounts of food, exercising compulsively, cutting entire food groups out of their diet or obsessively counting calories.

Peer pressure and bullying

Another potential trigger for eating disorders is when we compare ourselves to our peers and feeling “less than.” This is especially prevalent in elementary, middle and high school when everyone’s bodies are changing at different rates. If your child is feeling social pressure–or is even being bullied–at school because of the way their body looks, they could be at a greater risk of feeling triggered and developing an eating disorder. Look out for signs in your child or teen like comparing their body and weight to a friend’s or obsessing over achieving the perfect look.”

Sports and athletic activities

Sports are great for getting more physical activity and building a community of peers, however they can also lead to over-exercising and/or restricting food intake in an effort to boost athletic performance. Some youth and teen sports in particular encourage an ideal body type–whether that means a lean figure, increased muscle mass or a high or low body weight– such as dance and cross-country running.

Additionally, athletes need to adjust their diet to help them perform their best. If students are not educated about proper nutrition, they may accidentally lose weight and develop nutritional deficiencies even while eating a normal diet. When this occurs in women and girls, it is known as female athlete triad syndrome. If your child participates in sports, help educate them on healthy eating and make sure they are not over-exerting themselves.


While not specific to school, puberty is a potential trigger for an eating disorder. The social environment of school can amplify a child’s concerns over their changing appearance. They may compare themselves to their peers and try to change their bodies to “fit in.”

For example, a teen boy may look at some of his peers who have grown tall and muscular, and start to compulsively lift weights so he can achieve the same body type. A young girl may compare herself to other girls who appear thinner, and then restrict food to attain a similar appearance. Puberty is rather noticeable–much to our teens’ chagrin–and when discussed at school it can lead to anxiety around food.

Symptoms of eating disorders in children and teens

Many children go through the middle and high school years without any significant health issues, but be aware that eating disorders often develop in adolescence. There are several signs you can watch out for that may indicate your child is struggling with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or another eating disorder.

Food-restrictive behaviors

  • Skipping meals;
  • Eating very little at meals;
  • Counting and measuring things like calories, fat and protein;
  • Refusing to eat certain foods or food groups, such as carbs, fat or sugar;
  • Going on a diet, especially fad diets;
  • Saying they don’t feel hungry.

Bingeing and purging behaviors

  • Eating a large amount of food in one sitting;
  • Never eating at home or in front of others;
  • Stealing or hoarding food;
  • Vomiting after eating;
  • Misusing laxatives;
  • Making trips to the bathroom after eating;
  • Exercising to “burn off” calories, even when injured or sick;
  • Fasting or going on diets.

Psychological symptoms

  • Obsessing over food, weight and appearance;
  • Frequently commenting on their weight or saying they feel “fat;”
  • Feeling guilty, depressed or disgusted with themselves after eating;
  • Displaying anxiety about food and eating;
  • Having fears about eating in public or in front of others;
  • Withdrawing from family and friends;
  • Experiencing mood swings.

Even if your child is struggling with eating disorder triggers, especially while at school, it is possible to get help and treat the issue.

Is your child struggling with an eating disorder?

Do you recognize some of these symptoms in your child? Find out if it could be an eating disorder by taking the Seeds of Hope eating disorder quiz:

Take Quiz

If you would like to speak to a professional about your child’s symptoms, call our treatment specialists at (610) 644-6464.

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