Signs Of Eating Disorders In Young Children

Eating disorders are most common in teens and young adults, but sometimes, they can affect pre-adolescents. Many signs of eating disorders are harder to diagnose in young children, but anorexic or bulimic behavior can cause significant problems for preteen growth. If you have noticed a change in your child's eating habits, growth patterns, or general behavior, you may want to consider checking for the signs of disordered eating. 

At what age do eating disorders manifest?

Even though the majority of cases consist of girl older than 12, boys and girls can both struggle with disordered eating as young as 6 or 7 years old. In fact, by 2006, the number of children under twelve who were hospitalized for disordered eating complications had doubled since 1999. Young children with disordered eating is becoming more and more common, and parents need to recognize the causes and signs.

What leads to disordered eating in children?

Eating disorders are characterized by an unrealistic relationship with food and by a distorted view of the body. Often, eating disorders in children can be triggered by:

  • a traumatic experience. Children seek for control, especially when they are trying to resolve feeling of anxiety or grief. Controlling food may signify a cry for help as the child seeks to regain control over their world.
  • depression. Often, children who struggle with self esteem are more likely to develop negative thoughts about their bodies. 
  • an example. Parents of relatives can unknowingly teach disordered eating by being openly preoccupied with looks and body image.
  • bullying and societal pressures. Children who are teased for their weight or who feel the pressure to look good from peers or family members, are more likely to use controlling their food as a way to resolve these perceived "problems".

What are some signs and symptoms of childhood eating disorders?

In order to help children who struggle with eating disorders, it's important to catch the problem before it becomes too serious. Some common signs a child may be developing an unhealthy relationship with their body include:

  • a preoccupation with good and bad foods. Some children are picky eaters because they only like certain foods or are hesitant to try new things. However, when the pickiness leads to verbalization about things being "bad" or "good" in the moral sense, this is a red flag. Children seeing food as an adversary is the beginning of disordered eating. 
  • weight loss. Children grow rapidly, so some fluctuations in weigh are normal. However, a 15% reduction in body weight is cause for alarm. 
  • preoccupation with looks. For example, a young girl should not worry about whether a pair of jeans make her look fat.
  • dividing foods into small portions on the plate. This behavior is a strategy to eat less at a meal, while making it appear like the child ate more than they actually did. 
  • hiding food in strange places, like in the closet, clothing pockets, or under the bed. 
  • complaints about feeling sick in order to avoid eating.
  • intense, deliberate increase in physical activity for extended periods of time. 

Besides these daily signs, parents should also worry if their child stops growing, does not gain any weight while growing taller, or if puberty becomes noticeably delayed. Lack of food also affects attention and mood. A sudden dip in school performance and a permanent change in disposition are more warning signs.

What can parents do to help?

Your pediatrician should be the first person you speak to, as malnourishment can cause health problems. They will be able to provide you with nutritional advice. However, parents can also help children to overcome eating disorders by:

  • preparing and cooking meals with their children. This helps to remedy the "food is the enemy" mentality, as eating together as a family builds relationships and creates loving bonds.
  • staying vigilant in helping children to consume the calories they need. This may mean having all meals at home, even during the school year, until the disorder improves. 
  • taking them to children counseling sessions. For eating problems caused by trauma or depression, more professional intervention is needed.