Eating disorders can occur in children, and that is a tragedy in and of itself. However, there is an even bigger issue at play here, which is that such conditions often remain undiagnosed for a long time. This happens because they tend to manifest themselves in a different way from symptoms experienced by adults and adolescents.
What are the warning signs of an eating disorder in children?
One of the biggest impediments to early diagnosis is that child symptoms are different from those suggesting eating disorders in adults. In a child, you need to look for the following signs:
- Low body weight (especially if lost rapidly and for no obvious reason)
- Distorted body image or perception of body weight, intense fear of gaining/losing weight
- Refusal to eat certain foods (often accompanied by extreme and violent tantrums)
- Denial of hunger
- Obsessive eating
- Excessive physical activity (often coexisting with an eating disorder, but can be a separate problem altogether)
- Strange eating habits
What do you do when the child has an eating disorder?
First of all, if you suspect the condition you should take your child to a pediatrician and child psychologist to obtain an accurate diagnosis of the issue. From this point onwards it is incumbent upon the family to be proactive in intervention. You will need to:
Take complete control of their eating
This is invariably necessary because as a parent you have the power to control what your child eats. And as therapy is mostly inefficient at this stage of their development and no approved medications exist, strict control is basically the only thing you can use to ensure that your child stops harming their health.
When we did it, I had to lock up all the food in the house and ration it strictly according to the guidelines outlined by a dietician. The tantrums were epic and the stress upon everyone involved was tremendous. We ourselves had to go through family therapy in order to cope.
But in the end it was all worth it, so I urge every parent out there to start addressing this issue as soon as possible. Early interventions have the highest rate of success and can prevent permanent damage to your child’s physical and mental development.
Start working out together
If your child’s eating disorder causes them to gain weight or originated from them having excess weight in the first place, exercising will be an essential component of the treatment program. It will also help reduce anxiety, which often accompanies such conditions. The best way to get your child to exercise is to do it with them, so make a place for it in your house and establish a simple workout routine. The routine part is important because children need stability more than ever when struggling with mental health issues.
Bear in mind though that if your child’s disorder makes them lose weight you will need to do the opposite and limit their activity.
Provide behavioral intervention
Behavioral therapy is an essential element of the treatment because it helps to break unhealthy eating patterns and to replace them with healthy habits.
Your doctor should be the one to develop the right behavioral strategy for the child and you will need to consult them about their progress regularly.
Why are child eating disorders so hard to treat?
The majority of parents are not equipped either to spot the early warning signs or to offer proper help to their children once diagnosis has taken place. This was so in my case and I’ve since met hundreds of other parents who experienced the same issues.
This is because we have stereotypical perceptions of eating disorders which are created by the media. We cannot even comprehend that the anorexic diet-obsessed skinny models from movies might suffer from the same problem as our kids who throw tantrums and refuse to eat their veggies. That or we look at the morbidly obese adults and cannot see how their binge eating habits have in fact developed from a simple love of snacks and seconds that has gotten out of control.
And this doesn’t even touch upon the fact that children often suffer not from anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating but from:
- Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS)
Conditions which have symptoms of an eating disorder, yet often lack some vital component. With young kids it’s most likely to be the body image issues. This was one of the major reasons why I missed the early signs of the problem with my own child. My kid has no issues with being a bit overweight, so obviously I shouldn’t worry about them having an eating disorder, right? Turns out it’s very wrong because your kids can in fact have all the truly bad symptoms without giving any thought to how their peers perceive their body shapes.
- Avoidant/Restrictive Food Eating Disorder.
Kids can develop food aversions based upon taste, look, smell, and even texture. And when your child has an eating disorder-magnitude problem, such avoidances can result in nutritional deficiencies. I shouldn’t need to explain what kind of damage they can do to a child’s body during its developmental stage.
If any of the issues mentioned in this article sound familiar to you as a parent, consult a pediatrician right away. The sooner you start treatment, the better the chance that your child will live a happy and healthy life.