Childhood Eating Disorders a Growing Menace

plate and silverware

Sadie was like most 10 year old girls—she liked swimming and soccer, horses and rainbows, and catching fireflies in the summertime. As a fourth-grade student, she was especially concerned about spelling bees and cared very much about keeping her straight-A record. She’d gotten a C once on a social studies test and her parents would have thought she’d lost a pet.

Her mother called Sadie “Miss Fretful” on occasion because she tended to worry enough for the whole family. Even otherwise relaxing beach trips could be spent with Sadie somewhere fretting over the possibility of jellyfish stings or the terror of impending sun poisoning. And she’d been a perfectionist even at the age of 2, when she’d insisted on helping her mother fold towels and had spent 20 minutes on one wash cloth, getting it just so. Sadie’s family, of course, found all these things to just be, well, Sadie—her own traits and idiosyncrasies, no different in the grand scheme than anyone else.

So no one noticed when Sadie began restricting her food; she’d always been a picky eater. At first she despised bread, then no to meat. Finally even sweets were off limits, which had her brother amused—who didn’t like cupcakes? Weirdo Sadie, that’s who. And she’d always been a slender girl; her dad liked to call her “string bean.” It wasn’t until she was sent to the nurse’s office after a fainting episode on the playground that anyone took realized something was wrong. The nurse noticed the dark circles under Sadie’s eyes and how especially thin she looked. When she was weighed, Sadie had lost 11 pounds—down from the 65 pounds she’d weighed only two months before when school had started. A 10-year-old girl should not be fainting, and she should be growing, not losing weight.

When malnutrition due to parental neglect was ruled out, Sadie’s parents were instructed to take her to a clinic that specialized in eating disorders and which even treated children. But they were unnerved, certain something else had to be wrong. How could their little girl, not even a teenager yet, have an eating disorder? She still loved kittens more than most people and was nothing like her 13-year-old sister, queen of the “selfie” photographs, despite constant complaints about her hair, skin, or even weight. It turned out, however, that Sadie was among a growing number of children being diagnosed with eating disorders, all under the age of 12.

Childhood Eating Disorders Prevalence and Causes

A 2012 CNN news report discussed an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality study that “showed that hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 increased by 119 percent between 1999 and 2006.”

Researchers are uncertain what causes eating disorders but a combination of factors is implicated. While there is a strong biological link—a disease such as anorexia nervosa has high heritability—social and cultural indicators are also strongly correlated. Eating disorders can be set off by a stress event or trauma such as a move, parental divorce, or the loss of a loved one. Families that emphasize weight and physical beauty over internal beauty may be more vulnerable to the incidence of eating disorders in children, but they can occur even in families in which food, weight, and physical appearance are not subjects of focus.

Children who develop eating disorders frequently have perfectionist tendencies, have trouble with anxiety, and may deal with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. These children tend to be highly self-critical and may also exhibit symptoms of depression. According to Dina Zeckhausen, a psychologist and founder of the Eating Disorders Information Network, these children are also likely to be dealing with external pressures of some kind, such as bullying or sexual abuse. Zeckhausen explains that anorexia, for example, may be a way for a child to feel in control.

Eating Disorder Symptoms

Parents of children diagnosed with eating disorders often say they were unaware of their child’s problem until it had become severe. Reading the signs and symptoms takes an observant eye and an open ear.

  • Questions such as, “Am I fat?” or negative comments about weight or body parts
  • Sudden loss of interest in foods a child once found enjoyable
  • Eating less frequently or requesting smaller portions; cutting out certain foods
  • Sneaking or hoarding foods
  • Weight loss
  • Low energy
  • Hair loss
  • Excessive exercise

Treatment for childhood eating disorders usually requires outside help, and is most successful when caught early. For mothers who have experienced eating disorders, the importance of speaking positively about one’s body in front of a child cannot be over-emphasized. Don’t let her hear you criticize your weight and play up the importance of internal traits and qualities of character. Attentiveness to a child’s behaviors around food and self-observation are important to warding off potential problems.

Learn More About Our Programs

Change Your Life

Don’t wait another day to get the help you or a loved one needs. Call to speak to a recovery specialist now.