Binge Eating in Childhood: What Do Parents Need to Know?

Published: November 5, 2014

What is Binge Eating Disorder?

The newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), used by professionals in the United States to diagnose mental health disorders, was published last May, 2013. For the first time, binge eating disorder was included in the revamped Feeding and Eating Disorders section. Binge eating disorder is marked by episodes of binge eating, during which individuals eat a large amount of food and feel as though they lack the ability to stop eating. Unlike individuals with bulimia nervosa, those with binge eating disorder do not compensate or “make up” for what they ate following binge eating.

Can children binge eat?

When I discuss binge eating in children with friends or family members, the first question they often ask me is, “Do children really binge eat?” The answer is yes. Around 9-30% of children and teenagers experience binge eating. When I talk to children and teens with binge eating, they tell me about episodes where they feel like they “just can’t stop” eating. Once, a 6-year-old boy described the feeling of loss of control perfectly when he said he “couldn’t stop, and was eating and eating until he ‘hit a wall’ because there was no more to eat.” Children and teens who binge eat are more likely to have a higher weight than their classmates, have greater concerns about their eating habits and body image, and are more likely to report social difficulties or mood concerns than their peers who do not binge eat.

Do children “grow out of it,” or will they develop binge eating disorder?

While many children and teens report that they stop binge eating, about one-third to a half continue to binge eat as they get older. Children and teens who continue to binge eat are more likely to develop binge eating disorder. Therefore, helping youth manage their eating behaviors and reduce binge eating episodes may be important in preventing binge eating disorder.

How can a parent help?

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask. Parents may find it difficult to talk about binge eating for fear of hurting their child’s feelings. If you’re concerned about your child’s eating, broach the subject using friendly, non-judgmental language such as, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been eating differently lately. Have you noticed that too? Anything going on that you want to talk about?” Your child may be worried or confused about their eating behavior and will appreciate your support and willingness to open up the lines of communication.
  1. Seek professional assistance. If you are concerned about your child’s eating habits, consult a professional. Providers can be found through the “Find a Provider” link on the Binge Eating Disorder Association’s website ( Alternatively, ask your child’s pediatrician for local referrals for a mental health professional who has experience with childhood eating and weight concerns.
  1. Regularly check in about other areas of your child’s life. A common trigger for binge eating is stress. For example, school pressures, challenging peer relationships, and major life stressors combined with a genetic vulnerability to binge eating can set a problem with binge eating in motion. Set aside a special time every day to check-in with your child and help them find ways to cope with stress.
  1. Avoid making negative comments about your child’s eating behavior or putting your child on a diet. Avoid criticizing or blaming your child for their eating habits. Additionally, starting your child on a diet or restricting certain foods may make your child more likely to binge eat. Focus on providing a supportive environment for your child and finding a medical provider who can work with your family to overcome any eating-related challenges your child is experiencing.


Tanofsky-Kraff, M. (2008). Binge Eating Among Children and Teenagers. In: E. Jelalian & R.G. Steele (Eds.), Handbook of Childhood and Teenager Obesity (p. 43-59). Springer US.

Tanofsky-Kraff, M., Shomaker, L.B., Olsen, C., Roza, C.A., Wolkoff, L.E., Columbo, K.M., et al. (2011). A prospective study of pediatric loss of control eating and psychological outcomes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 120(1), 108-118.

Hilbert, A., Hartmann, A.S., Czaja, J., & Schoebi, D. (2013). Natural course of preteenager loss of control eating. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(3), 684-693.

Hilbert, A., & Brauhardt, A. (2014). Childhood loss of control eating over five‐year follow‐up. International Journal of Eating Disorders, In press.

photo credit: Wilson X via Creative Commons