When you think of bulimia and other eating disorders, you probably associate the condition with teens, young adults, or women. Unfortunately, the occurrence of eating disorders in young children (under the age of 12) has been increasing. It’s important that parents recognize that bulimia, binge-eating, and anorexia could affect their young children. Eating disorders directly affect the growth and development of the body, and youthful eating disorders could cause lasting damage to the child’s body.
What Causes Eating Disorders in Children?
Early detection of the condition is the best defense against serious health consequences. As a parent, you are in the best position to recognize signs of bulimia in children, whether they are your own or friends of your children.
Medical and psychiatric professionals can’t tell you the direct causes of eating disorders, but they can talk to you about risk factors. For example, if someone in your family has an eating disorder, your child may be at a higher risk for developing a disorder. In fact, according to researchers, this single factor increases the risk of a disorder by seven to 12 times. Other factors include anxiety, depression, chronic illness, diabetes, and mental illness.
Recognize the Signs of Bulimia
The truth is that these factors that increase the risk of an eating disorder are fairly common even in young children. The factors alone aren’t an indication that your child has a disorder. However, if you are concerned that your child has bulimia, anorexia, or binge-eating, look for the following signs:
- An irresistible urge to rapidly eat large amounts of food
- Difficulty stopping once eating has begun even though your child is uncomfortably full
- Eating when your child isn’t hungry
- A desire to eat alone, shame over the way your child eats
- A loss of control over eating when feeling negative emotions
- Frequent vomiting after meals or the use of laxative or diuretics
- Anger toward self for eating habits
- Excessive exercise to burn off calories
- Attempts to follow strict diets
- Concern over gaining weight and achieving an “ideal” body weight
Remember that early treatment is the best way to help your child enjoy a healthy, full life. If you recognize some of these signs in your child, it’s best to seek treatment from a qualified professional.
Parental Guilt and Picky Eaters
One dilemma that parents face is that it can be harder to recognize an eating disorder in a child than in an adult. Sometimes, parents feel a lot of guilt for not recognizing a disorder earlier. Although the incidence of childhood bulimia is increasing, it is still fairly uncommon, and parents have a lot of things to be on guard for when it comes to their children. Without a reason to believe your child is suffering from an eating disorder, you probably won’t be watching for early indicators. If your child has any of the risk factors mentioned above, you may want to watch for signs of avoidant restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID.
Sometimes, ARFID is hard to distinguish from picky eating. However, when those picky eating habits lead to missed growth milestones or inhibit daily functioning, it’s time to watch out for symptoms. Children with ARFID tend to stick to foods within a very narrow range, such as foods of one color or texture. Children with this disorder don’t eat enough food to satisfy nutritional and energy requirements. This disorder does not stem for concern about weight or body shape. Additionally, children with ARFID are at greater risk of developing bulimia.
Treatment for Childhood Eating Disorders
The treatment for children with eating disorders has several components. One of the first steps is to help the child gain back an appropriate amount of weight while meeting physical and nutritional needs. Treatment often involves family interventional steps, helping parents recover from any feelings of guilt and reinforcing confidence in family members. When parents feel confident in their ability to help their child, the recovery results improve. Treatment may also include behavioral interventions for the child, such as exposing them to foods they’ve come to avoid and teaching them to have a healthy relationship with eating.
The Recovery Team
Full recovery generally involves a full team of family members and professionals. For example, the pediatrician, a nutritionist, and a mental health professional may work with the child, members of the child’s family, and even friends of the child. As the parent of a child with an eating disorder, it’s important that you also feel that you’re getting support and learning to have a healthy relationship with eating. If you believe you may also have an eating disorder, be sure to talk to your own healthcare provider.
Develop Healthy Conversations About Body Image
Therapy isn’t the only step in the path toward successful recovery. It’s also crucial that you help develop a positive relationship with food for your child. Your example of eating well and exercising appropriately can impact your child’s eating and exercise habits. The way you talk about your own body sets the tone for your child’s belief about her own body.
Today, many parents, siblings, and friends of children are hyperaware of weight and body image. In working hard to avoid obesity, sometimes family members or friends inspire the dangerous habits of an eating disorder. It’s important to change your conversations about body image to reflect healthy patterns of eating and exercising.
An Early Response Improves Recovery
The National Eating Disorders Association defines eating disorders as serious emotional and physical problems affecting females and males with the possibility of life-threatening consequences. If you suspect that your child has an eating disorder, talk to your medical care provider or qualified mental health professional. Remember that even children younger than eight may develop a disorder and the earlier you can catch the disorder, the better the results for your child.