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Eating Disorders in Young Children

Prevalence, risk factors, and treatment of eating disorders in children

Eating Disorders in Young Children
July 2012

As our country faces a national obesity epidemic, attention may neglect a growing group of children and adolescents who do not get enough to eat. Physicians and health officials are seeing more children diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa than ever before.

Unheard of several decades ago, it is now common for physicians to treat children under the age of ten. Dr. Jonathan Richardson, Clinical Psychologist for The Clarian Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders in Indianapolis, says they are seeing more children with eating disorders than in the past.

"I think there's a lot more emphasis on kids weight. I think that all of the childhood obesity campaigning is well intended and some of it is probably good, but there is a lot of research to show that putting healthier foods in front of kids is helpful in preventing obesity and talking to them about healthy choices isn't as good," said Richardson.

Just as the demographic of eating disorder patients is changing, so is the research that could help parents better understand the root of their child's disorder. Dr. Mary Rouse, Medical Director of The Charis Center for Eating Disorders, says most children with eating disorders embody a certain set of characteristics that parents should be aware of.

Some of the most significant risk factors for developing an eating disorder are children who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, perfectionists or children who express concern about their weight.

"A large percentage of kids that develop eating disorders have anxiety and OCD. The younger they are, the stronger the correlation," says Richardson.

However, once the eating disorder starts to develop, a child may display a number of behavioral patterns that parents should look for. Anorexic behavior is very ritualized. A child may pick apart food, move food around on the plate, eat alone, cut out certain types, of food or refuse to eat.

Bulimic patients often eat mass amounts of food at once, sneak food, eat multiple servings or spend a long time in the bathroom after meals. Parents may find empty wrappers in their child's room, which indicates they are "eating in shame."

Dr. Rouse also cites society and the media's influence as factors in the development of eating disorders in children.

"The media is not only sexualizing kids younger and younger; there is more information about eating disorders on the Internet and children's programs which then make kids start thinking about their weight," says Rouse.

Having a parent on a diet or expressing preoccupation with his or her own weight has shown to have an influence on their child's preoccupation with weight as well. Children are four times as likely to develop an eating disorder if one of their parents had or has an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are still a rare occurrence. Even if a child does display some of the more common risk factors, it does not mean they will develop an eating disorder. Parents can minimize the risk by promoting "health" rather than weight.

The most common treatment for children with eating disorders is known as family based therapy, where parents are in charge of nutritional treatment.

"I would tell parents not to focus on their kids body, shape or weight but rather to promote eating as a way to fuel our bodies to let us do what we want to do. No dieting talk at home," says Rouse.

But in a culture that places so much value on being thin, Dr. Richardson says that how we talk about weight around our children is very important.

"Sometimes talking about weight makes kids very conscious in a bad way about their weight and food. Kids are very concrete and if you get an anxious, perfectionist kid, they can take that way too far. Kids don't really have judgment," says Richardson.

The most important thing you can do is be observant! Know your child's eating habits know how to recognize the signs of a disorder.

"It is very important to catch it at a young age. The earlier you catch it, the easier it is to treat," says Richardson.

Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Pediatric Health, Tweens & Teens

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