Eating Disorders in Children

Children and Eating DisordersThe thought of having a young child develop an eating disorder is saddening. Unfortunately in more recent years the number of children diagnosed with eating disorders has been on the rise. Although the onset of eating disorders is most typically documented in adolescents, prepubescent children can and do develop them. Children as young as 7 can be diagnosed with an eating disorder and the prevalence of eating disorders in young children has been growing. It is unclear why more young children are being diagnosed with eating disorders; it is possible that diagnostic techniques have improved as well as clinicians being better educated on the signs and symptoms, but there are studies that are looking into this concerning trend.

It may well be that young children always developed eating disorders, but that they went undiagnosed until they got older. Identifying eating disorders in the very young is more difficult because prepubescent children differ in body weight and nourishment naturally as growth spurts come and go. If a child loses weight this is very indicative that something is amiss. In her book, Give Food A chance, Julie O’ Toole of the Kartini Clinic says a child’s weight should not go down, “Any actual weight loss heralds a problem (not always an eating disorder) until proven otherwise, even in fat children.” In fact, many children who later develop anorexia start out on the heavier side.

If a child is not eating enough when he or she is in a growing stage his or her height could be compromised. There are also complications as parents try to distinguish an eating disorder from more common food behaviors in young children, such as picky eating and fussiness. There are forms of eating disorders such as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder which is described as an eating disturbance in which a sufferer fails to meet an adequate body weight but does not fit in the diagnostic criteria for anorexia or bulimia. These disorders are usually the route that an eating disorder takes in a young child as it is unlikely that younger sufferers will say or think that they are fat. Just because a child does not state that they think they are fat does not mean that they cannot have an eating disorder. There are other ways that eating disorders express themselves; selective eating disorder is when a person is only able to eat a couple of different foods without stress, and pica is seen in adults and children who have cravings to eat non-foods such as coal or gravel. All of these are different forms of eating disorders which call for a different treatment focus than anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa.

While parents are not to blame for eating disorders, they can be a very positive force when helping their young children recover from them. In very young children it will most likely be the parents who are relied on to deliver a constant and structured recovery plan. This can be done with the help of a treatment team and peers.

Symptoms to watch out for:

  • Refusal to eat
  • Reduction in portion size
  • Body image concerns
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fine hair growing on body
  • Hiding or hoarding food
  • Weight loss or failure to gain weight in a growing child
  • Lack of growth
  • Hyperactivity or excessive movement such as leg jiggling, running around, or standing and refusing to sit still
  • Thinning hair on head
  • Menstrual cycle abnormalities in girls
  • Personality changes, usually irritability or depression
  • Anger when offered food

Be sure to read A Mom’s Perspective: Having a Child with an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders present uniquely in different individuals, and these are just a few of the most common symptoms. As a parent you know your child better than anyone else so if you have any doubts about their behavior contact a professional and ask for advice.

Eating Disorders in Children

If you suspect that your child has an eating disorder:

  • Trust your instincts as a parent. You know if something is not right.
  • Find a family based therapy trained treatment provider. More information on finding a therapist is here.
  • Do not blame yourself. This is a waste of your precious energy. Parents do not cause eating disorders.
  • Educate yourself – online blogs, books, forums and reviews of clinical trials will help you understand eating disorders and therefore the role that it is playing in your household dynamics.
  • Do not underestimate the potential that you have to help your child recover. Eating disorders are difficult and will have detrimental effects on your familys functionality, make sure that you surround yourself with resources so that you can stay strong, optimistic and positive.

Eating disorders place a great deal of physical stress on any persons body, and this is true no matter what age that person is, but in a growing body it is even more vital that weight is restored quickly so that the child’s height, bone strength or fertility is not permanently compromised. If you have any doubts at all about your child’s body weight it is important that you seek help immediately.

Understand that an eating disorder will change your child’s personality somewhat due to the large amount of stress that your child’s body is under. Your child may become irritable and moodier than before. This is something that is a natural response in a body and brain that is undernourished and most parents find that after their child’s body has returned to a more normal weight the happy son or daughter that they once knew comes back also.

Anorexia in Children

Parents have come under a lot of criticism in the past due to previous thinking being that eating disorders were caused by faulty parenting. This old fashioned school of thought has been disproven for a number of years now, but unfortunately it is still something that has not fully been accepted and understood by everyone everywhere. People that are not adequately educated on eating disorders might still believe that bad parenting is a cause, and if you are a parent that has a child who sufferers an eating disorder you will inadvertently need to become an advocate for the truth behind what an eating disorder actually is. It is important that you understand that your child’s eating disorder is not your fault and find a supportive community to help you and your family return to wellness.

While a parents attitude to food cannot cause an eating disorder, a good attitude to food and eating can help a child who is struggling with one to recover. Demonstrating that no food should be feared and that all nutrients, fat, carbohydrates and protein are important for a body to thrive is a beneficial message for any family to adopt. Keeping low fat foods and talk of dieting out of the home is another important protocol for the whole family to adopt. Planned family meals give children a good structure and can help them understand the importance of sitting down and eating well. Health at Every Size is a non weight-based approach to healthy food and activity which focuses on finding one’s personal path to health and wellness without concentrating on body weight.


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Written by Tabitha Farrar – April, 2014

Further Reading:

Getting Your Child With an Eating Disorder to Eat

A Mom’s Perspective: Having a Child with an Eating Disorder

Help Your Teenager Beat An Eating Disorder, by James Lock and Daniel LeGrange.

Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, by Linda Bacon.

Early Intervention: What, Why and How?” Katharine Loeb, PhD, Maudsley Parents Conference, February 2012- Slides only

Eating With Your Anorexic: How My Child Recovered Through Family-Based Treatment and Yours Can Too, by Laura Collins.

ED Bites- Eating Disorders in Young Children

The Very Young Child With Anorexia