School studies of children between the ages of 8 and 13 found that 20% to 56% of children report dieting. Although this is shocking, and the actual eating disorder in this young child is still relatively rare, anorexia nervosa has been found in children as young as 7 years old.
Importantly, eating disorders in children and adolescents look different from eating disorders in adolescents and adults. Therefore, young people’s eating disorders are often misdiagnosed. Parents need to know about eating disorders in children and adolescents.
Differences between children and tweens
Children and adolescents are less likely to experience body image disturbances, which are often seen as a sign of eating disorders. Therefore, if a parent’s child loses weight and shows less interest in eating, but does not mean that he is afraid of getting fat, he may be off track.
Compared with elderly patients with eating disorders, younger patients with eating disorders are more likely to be men. Young patients with eating disorders are also less likely to report binge eating or laxatives, and are less likely to try diuretics or laxatives to lose weight. The diagnosis of avoidance of restrictive intake disorder (ARFID) is also more common in younger patients.
Younger patients may not be able to achieve the expected weight or height gain instead of losing weight quickly. Children and adolescents who are initially heavier may develop eating disorders and risk a delayed diagnosis.
It is not normal for a growing child to lose weight and should always be a cause for concern.
Exercise is a common symptom of eating disorders in older adolescents and adults, but it can also be different in children and adolescents. Young people are less likely to engage in goal-oriented sports, such as running or going to the gym. However, they may exhibit behaviors that look like ADHD, such as running around, pacing, and refusing to sit down while others are watching TV.
Although older teenagers may explain dieting because they do not eat certain foods, children and adolescents are unlikely to give a coherent reason for their refusal to eat certain foods. They may just start to refuse certain foods or complain of stomach pains. This will also derail parents.
Eating disorders can have dangerous medical consequences. Children with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or other eating disorders experience malnutrition, anxiety and depression, and damage to teeth, esophagus, gums, and internal organs. Eating disorders can also be fatal.
Eating disorder warning sign
To ensure that your child does not have an eating disorder, please pay attention to the following signs and symptoms:
- The growing child loses weight or gains underweight (even if the child was older)
- Refuse to eat foods that you liked before (usually without explanation)
- Diet, talk about dieting or focus on losing weight
- Negative comments about their body shape or related behaviors, such as wearing loose-fitting clothes
- Increased anxiety when eating, claiming that they have eaten, and/or making excuses not to eat
- Hyperactivity or excessive exercise (may not be significantly related to trying to lose weight)
- Concentrate on cooking, watch cooking shows, read recipes and/or cook for others and refuse to eat the food they make
- Loss of a lot of food (may indicate overeating)
- Go to the bathroom and/or shower after meals (may indicate purification)
- Other less specific symptoms that parents sometimes notice before their child is diagnosed include anxiety, changes in sleep patterns, social withdrawal, mood swings, depression, angry outbursts, irritability, and physical symptoms (such as dizziness or stomach pain).
If you suspect that your child is showing signs of an eating disorder, you must take action. Discuss your concerns with your child, but please note that many children and adolescents with eating disorders will not admit that there is a problem, even if there is a problem.
Next, share your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. Consider consulting a mental health professional who specializes in eating disorders for advice and support.
Please note that not all pediatricians are good at detecting eating disorders early. Even if they assure you that everything is normal and you are still worried, please trust your instincts and continue to seek guidance and observe your child.
If your child is diagnosed with an eating disorder, please be aware that there are many different treatment options. Study these options carefully. Early diagnosis and treatment provide the best opportunity for long-term recovery.