We think of eating disorders as an adolescent’s illness, something that develops during the turbulent transitions of young lives. Unfortunately, instances of young children with eating disorders are on the rise. According to CNN, research by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality shows that eating disorders in children under age 12 rose by 119% between 1999 and 2006.
What’s Causing Eating Disorders in Children
What accounts for this sharp increase in eating disorders in young children? As in adolescents and adults, there are certain characteristics and habits that shape the predisposition to an eating disorder:
- Anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies
- Chaotic home life (abuse, neglect, trauma, divorce)
- Restrictive eating habits
Our nation has a fixation on “obesity”. Schools have been introduced to nutrition and fitness programs that, while well-intentioned, can have a strong effect on children’s self-esteem and body image. The CNN article interviewed psychologist Dina Zeckhausen, who says she sees children as young as 3rd and 4th grade worrying about becoming fat. Even in children who are overweight, restrictive diets can lead to an eating disorder. It is far better to emphasize health and wellness as a family than strict diets imposed on the child alone.
Please note, the terms “obese” and “obesity” have been criticized as weight stigmatizing and imprecise. Although we use the terms to quote others’ work, “obese” and “obesity” are terms that Center For Discovery rejects.
ED Can Affect Growth in Children
Children who develop eating disorders are at risk for serious health consequences. One of the very first things a treatment team will do when working with a very young patient is consult growth charts. A sharp drop off in growth indicates how devastating these illnesses can be to the healthy development of a child. Bones can be affected, the ability to reach a natural height can be impacted, and reproductive issues can occur for girls, sometimes even before the start of their first menses.
It can be difficult for parents of young children to recognize a budding eating disorder. Mirror Mirror, an education and advocacy website, informs parents to be mindful of the following red flags:
- Refusal to eat
- Cutting back on portions
- Body image issues and social withdrawals
- Fine hair over the body and thinning hair on the head
- Growth problems: weight loss or failure to grow in a child is a strong indicator of malnutrition
- Personality changes
- Menstrual abnormalities
If your child is exhibiting symptoms, consult your pediatrician. If a diagnosis has been made, there is support. Mirror Mirror reminds you to avoid blaming yourself. Trust your instincts and use your energy to find the very best treatment options for your child. One of the best places to start is the National Eating Disorders Association. There you can find a Parent Toolkit, support resources, and treatment finders.
As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else and you are well-equipped to navigate this crisis. Remember that support is available and that when caught early, eating disorders can be treated and recovery is well within reach.
Farrar, T. (2014). Eating Disorders in Children. Mirror Mirror Eating Disorders.
Harb, C. (2012). Child Eating Disorders on the Rise. CNN.