Blog | Four ways you can support a young person with an eating disorder

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This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Here are four ways in which volunteers can support a young person who has an eating disorder.

It can sometimes be difficult to know how best to support a young person who appears to be experiencing mental health problems. Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia are  mental health problems because they are normally the result of difficult thoughts and feelings, which lead to harmful behaviours. 

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, whatever their age, gender or cultural background, although it's more common in young women from age 12, boys are susceptible too. 

The following four tips will also give you some guidance on how to support a young person who appears to be struggling with an eating disorder. 

1. Be available to talk and listen.  

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One of the most important things you can do to help a young person who you suspect has an eating disorder, is to show them that you are there for them and you’re listening. Talk to the young person gently and non-judgmentally in a quiet space. Always follow Yellow Card guidelines. Explain what sort of behaviour you’re concerned about/specific times when you’ve felt concerned about them. Use open-ended questions to avoid a yes or no response and allow the young person have the space to explore their feelings.

2. Be a positive role model around food.

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You are a role model, so it is important to consider your own comments around eating or appearance, and demonstrate a healthy relationship to food at all times on Scout events. Support healthy and positive discussions around body image and food. Don’t try to persuade the person to change their behaviour. This could make them feel under threat, and may make them hide their eating problem. For example, trying to persuade someone to gain weight may make them feel afraid that they will be forced to eat. This is likely to make them withdraw from you or try to convince you they are eating even if they are not. 

3. Be sensitive to the young person’s relationship with food.

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On camp, mealtimes will be very stressful for a young person who is struggling with food. It is important not to draw attention to their behaviour or to make them feel ashamed in front of their peers.  It is worth talking to them about possible adjustments that can be made to help them during mealtimes. For example, they may prefer more privacy or may find particular food trigger destructive behaviour. 

4. Promote positive attitudes around body image, and do not reinforce their desire to be thin.

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If they say they feel fat or want to lose weight, don't say ‘You're not fat.’ Instead, suggest they explore their fears about being fat, and what they think they can achieve by being thin.  It might be worth incorporating ‘body image’ into an activity you do with your group.  For Beavers and Cubs, this body image activity is a good one and could contribute to the artist’s activity badge. 

More guidance about eating disorders, and how to support young people in Scouting is available via our Life Issues pages here. This guidance was created in partnership with the mental health charity, Mind. 

The Scout Association has developed an introductory e-learning pathway with MindEd, to provide further information and guidance on young people's mental health. This contains an e-learning module entitled 'Eating Problems'. For more information, click here

Remember to follow the Yellow Card at all times, and if you are concerned about a young person’s safety or wellbeing, follow the procedures on reporting a safeguarding concern, or contact the Safeguarding Team via

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