SSI Disability Benefits for Children and Teenagers With Anorexia or Other Eating Disorders

Teenagers and children with serious eating disorders that cause poor health or affect their functioning at home or school might qualify for SSI.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School

Anorexia nervosa, commonly referred to as anorexia, is an eating disorder in which people do not eat enough because of a fear of gaining weight. Bulimia nervosa, commonly referred to as bulimia, is an eating disorder in which someone binges (eats a large amount of food at once) and purges (vomits). Anorexia and bulimia sometimes occur together.

If your child suffers from anorexia, bulimia, or another eating disorder and it's so severe that it affects their daily functioning, the child might qualify to receive disability benefits through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. (Adults and teens over 18 can be eligible for either SSI or Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits; see our article on disability for adults with eating disorders.)

What Qualifies as an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder isn't a lifestyle choice or simply being a picky eater. It's a serious mental health condition characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food. Eating disorders significantly affect someone's thoughts and feelings about food, triggering obsessive, harmful, and even life-threatening changes in eating habits.

Common types of eating disorders include the following:

  • anorexia
  • bulimia
  • binge-eating disorder
  • avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), and
  • other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED), such as atypical anorexia nervosa.

Several less common eating disorders can nevertheless cause serious health issues, including:

  • rumination disorder (repeated regurgitation and re-chewing of food)
  • diabulimia (restricting insulin to lose weight), and
  • pica (eating non-nutritive items like paper, clay, chalk, dirt, or charcoal).

Symptoms of Eating Disorders in Children and Teens

Some children are picky eaters or show minimal interest in food. But children and teenagers who suffer from eating disorders go beyond normal childhood issues to the point where they harm themselves—doing both short-term and long-term damage to their bodies. Some of the signs of anorexia, ARFID, or other eating disorders include:

  • perfectionism
  • being highly self-critical
  • highly restrictive eating
  • compulsive dieting
  • self-induced vomiting
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • social withdrawal
  • excessive exercise
  • misuse of laxatives, and
  • unusual eating habits.

Short-Term Effects of Eating Disorders in Children

There are many short-term effects of anorexia. Those can include any of the following:

  • emaciation
  • dehydration and dizziness
  • abdominal pain
  • constipation and slowing of the intestinal tract
  • fatigue and anemia
  • intolerance to cold temperatures and growth of lanugo, which is a fine hair that grows on your body to keep you warm
  • lowered blood pressure, pulse, body temperature, and breathing rates, and
  • social withdrawal, irritability, moodiness, and depression.

Long-Term Effects of Anorexia and Other Eating Disorders

If your child begins to eat normally again, the short-term effects generally will go away. But some long-term effects can occur due to the stress placed on the child's body, such as:

  • damage to the major organs, including the brain, heart, or kidneys, and
  • thinning of the bones.

It's important to remember that recovery from anorexia or bulimia isn't as straightforward as treating other diseases. As with many psychologically based diseases, your child might relapse, and your child may need ongoing appointments with a nutritionist or therapist to maintain healthy eating habits.

When Eating Disorders Qualify for Disability Benefits

For your child to be eligible for SSI disability benefits, your household must meet the program's financial requirements, and your child must meet the medical requirements for disability.

How a Child Meets SSI's Financial Requirements

Because children generally don't have an income of their own, Social Security uses a process called "income deeming" to determine how much household income will be counted toward your child's SSI eligibility. Some of your income is exempt from the deeming process, such as:

  • public assistance (like TANF or SNAP benefits)
  • the first $20 of any unearned income (like Social Security or VA benefits)
  • a little over half of your and your spouse's earned income (wages and self-employment income), and
  • allocations for living expenses for household members, including you, your spouse, and any non-disabled children you support.

After all the deductions, what remains is "deemed" as income available to the child and counts toward SSI eligibility. If that's less than the federal benefit rate, your child will meet the SSI income requirement.

To be eligible for disability benefits, your child must also meet the SSI resource limit—$2,000 for a child with a single parent or $3,000 for a child living with two parents. But like income, not everything you own is counted toward this limit. Learn more about how Social Security counts your income and assets toward your child's SSI eligibility.

Qualifying Medically By Meeting the Listing for Childhood Eating Disorders

Once the technical requirements are met, your child must be found medically eligible for disability benefits by either meeting the impairment listing for eating disorders in the Social Security "Blue Book" or "functionally equaling" the listings (more on this below).

Social Security's Blue Book contains the criteria needed to qualify as disabled for some specific medical conditions. The Blue Book includes a listing (listing 112.13) for teenagers and children suffering from eating disorders.

To meet the requirements of the listing, you must show that your child or teen has a medically documented eating disorder that:

  • results in a change in consumption of food (or absorption of food), and
  • significantly impairs the child's physical or mental health.

You must also show that the eating disorder has caused significant deficits in your child's mental functioning. Specifically, your child must have an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a "marked" (severe) limitation in two:

  • managing oneself (ability to protect self from harm, maintain good hygiene, maintain well-being, regulate emotions, and control behavior)
  • understanding and remembering information (the ability to understand instructions, learn new things, apply new knowledge to tasks, and use judgment in decisions)
  • interacting with others (the ability to use socially appropriate behaviors), or
  • concentrating, enduring, and maintaining pace in performing tasks (the ability to stay focused on and complete tasks).

Evidence Required to Meet The Eating Disorders Listing

First, you must show Social Security that your child or teen has an eating disorder. The agency may look for:

  • the opinion of a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist regarding the disorder
  • weight loss or failure to make expected weight gains
  • abnormal laboratory (blood test) findings, and
  • cardiac abnormalities.

Second, Social Security will assess how your child's functioning is affected by comparing your child to other children of the same age. In addition to your child's symptoms, the SSA will look at your child's:

  • psychiatric or developmental testing results
  • standardized test results, and
  • reports from individuals who are around the child, such as:
    • parents
    • teachers
    • babysitters, and
    • others who regularly come into contact with your child.

How Your Child Can Functionally Equal the Listings

A child who doesn't meet the above listing requirements but still suffers from significant difficulties might be able to "functionally equal the listings." To functionally equal the listings means that your child's impairment is equal in severity to those in the listings.

Social Security assesses whether your child's condition can be considered as severe as those in the listings by evaluating the following six domains (areas) of functioning:

  • learning
  • performing tasks
  • socializing
  • moving
  • self-care, and
  • health and physical well-being.

As in the listing, you must show that your child has two severe limitations or one extreme limitation within the six domains.

Those with anorexia or another eating disorder would have significant difficulty in the domain of "health and physical well-being," as this domain includes the ability to have age-appropriate knowledge of and to provide oneself with proper nutrition.

The domain of "interacting and relating with others" will also likely be impaired, as this domain covers the ability to interact with others and maintain relationships with others. For children and teens with eating disorders, social withdrawal, depression, and unusual eating habits might inhibit the ability to maintain relationships.

Learn more about how to show your child functionally equals the disability listings.

Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) for Children With Eating Disorders

If your child is awarded disability benefits based on an eating disorder, Social Security will conduct periodic reviews to determine if your child is still disabled. For an impairment that has a possibility of improving, like anorexia or bulimia, Social Security assesses your child's disability every three years. For more information, see our article on continuing disability reviews.

When children receiving SSI disability turn 18, Social Security reevaluates their impairments based on the adult disability criteria. Learn more about Social Security's age 18 redetermination process.

How to Apply for SSI Benefits for a Child With an Eating Disorder

Applying for SSI for a child or teenager (under 18) is a two-step process. First, you must tell Social Security you want to apply for SSI. Then, you'll need to work with a Social Security representative to complete and submit your child's SSI application.

You can notify Social Security that you need to apply for SSI benefits for a child in one of the following ways:

If you request an application appointment online or by phone, Social Security will either send your appointment date and time by mail (and email) within one to two weeks or a representative will call to schedule the appointment.

If you choose to submit the disability report, Social Security will contact you (usually by phone) in three to five business days. During that call, the representative will review the report with you and discuss your child's financial eligibility for SSI benefits. Then, the representative will help you complete the SSI application process.

Get Help With a Child's Anorexia or Bulimia Disability Claim

When Social Security decides to grant or deny disability benefits based on a child's level of functioning, the medical and school records often don't contain enough information for an informed decision. So, what should be an objective decision can become a subjective one—based on the opinions of the disability claims examiner or administrative law judge (ALJ) who decides the case, rather than on the records of the doctors, psychiatrists, or psychologists who've examined and treated your child.

To get help bringing as much evidence in your favor as possible to your hearing, and get your child the deserved SSI benefits, you might consider hiring a lawyer who specializes in disability cases. Disability applicants with legal representation have a much better chance of being awarded benefits.

Updated April 10, 2024

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