Ten years ago the problem was practically non-existent. Today, instances of childhood eating disorders are up more than one hundred percent. Children as young as eight and nine years old are being found to struggle with serious disorders which can set them up for a lifetime of emotional struggles and health challenges. To illustrate the severity of the situation, reports say that hospitalizations of pre-teen children for eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia were up 119 percent from 1999 to 2006.
Disordered eating in young children is not only a matter of children not eating enough, but also not eating the proper balance of foods. Children with eating disorders risk iron deficiencies, inadequate calcium (which can lead to osteoporosis) and a variety of problems relating to malnutrition. As serious as these health issues are, the child’s physical health can be easier to remedy than their mental health. Eating disorders are a form of mental illness and dealing with the psychological issues behind disordered eating can be difficult. The earlier the disorder is recognized and addressed, the more likely it is that thinking and behavior can be normalized.
Pediatricians say that the longer an eating disorder goes undetected and untreated, the more that a wrong body image and thinking taking hold. After a time, the unhealthy thinking becomes ingrained in the child’s personality and separating them proves less and less successful. It is especially helpful for a child to be in the process of recovery before the onset of puberty since that is a normal period of weight increase.
Here are some things which parents should keep watch for in order to be alerted to a potential eating disorder:
- The child exhibits low energy
- The child is losing weight – childhood is a time for weight gain
- Hair loss
- The child begins avoiding certain foods that he/she once enjoyed
- The child begins skipping meals
- The child begins practicing strict portion control.
Some personalities are more vulnerable to forming an eating disorder. Children most susceptible are children who:
- Are experiencing depression
- Show tendency toward obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or are perfectionistic
- Children with anxiety
- Children who are experiencing bullying, abuse, or living through divorce.
Eating disorders are a way to exert control in a situation where the child feels out of control. Parents need to be attentive if any or especially several of these factors are present since eating disorders are often secretive. Children, like adults, will wear loose or baggy clothing in an effort to hide their weight loss and the inevitable confrontation with loved ones. Some parents say they had no idea how much weight their child had lost until they see them in a bathing suit.
With all the national attention being given to the problem of obesity among children, it is easy to miss this alarming trend among our younger citizens. Nevertheless, it is a serious, even life-threatening problem. Children need to be assured that there is more to beauty than thinness and there are ways other than self-starvation to take control in stressful situations.