Childhood Eating Disorders Can Start Early

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on January 22, 2019

Does your daughter throw a tantrum any time she’s served certain foods?

Does your son claim that your family’s favorite dishes give him a stomach ache?

Do some tastes and textures prompt scowls—or shrieks of dismay—from your child?

In a healthy toddler, these are signs of typical developmental changes.

But if you recognize any of these scenarios in your older child, they may have an eating disorder.

A Growing Problem

Eating disorders are often associated with teenagers, but kids 12 and under can also suffer from them. In fact, doctors are seeing more cases affecting younger children.

“There are no hard and fast statistics on children under 12 with eating disorders, but we do know that the number is increasing, and the hospitalization of kids under 12 is increasing,” said Kelly Henchel, M.D., chief of Carilion Clinic’s General Pediatric Clinic.

“The many possible reasons for this include insults by family or friends, a life stressor and the whole societal emphasis on dieting today,” she added.

An eating disorder can have long-term consequences: Children may suffer from malnutrition, low energy levels and personality changes.

If left untreated, a disorder can stunt a child’s development, including his or her height. In the worst case, a child could actually die. 

Three types of eating disorders are common in children:

  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa           

Children with avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder may avoid foods because they dislike their taste or texture. They might also be afraid that certain foods will make them vomit or give them a stomach ache.

Kids with anorexia nervosa—both boys and girls—believe they are overweight when they may actually be quite underweight.

Children with bulimia nervosa, often called bulimia, may binge on food and then purge to prevent weight gain.

Warning Signs

How can you tell if your child is just a picky eater or is suffering from an eating disorder?

Signs of a disorder include:

  • Losing interest in once-favored foods
  • Cutting portion sizes
  • Hiding or hoarding food
  • Weight loss
  • Failure to gain weight
  • Tantrums
  • Mood swings
  • Concern about body image
  • Lack of growth
  • Constipation
  • Hair thinning
  • Delay of puberty
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Growth of fine body hair
  • Personality changes (an eating disorder can affect your child emotionally due to the stress placed on the body)

We do know that eating disorders can be inherited, so if someone else in the family had one, your child is more likely to as well. Kids with a chronic illness are also more susceptible.

Getting Help

If you’re concerned that your child may have a disorder, don’t feel guilty. Your parenting style has not caused the problem.

Do seek out as much information as you can to understand your child’s reactions. Books, online blogs and forums can help.

Also, find a good therapist skilled in treating eating disorders. Your family doctor can suggest one, or you can get more information here.

Most of all, hang in there. With time and patience—and a lot of love—you and your child can overcome this.
 
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