Posted on Wednesday, November 30th, 2022 at 11:48 am
Recognizing the Signs of Eating Disorders in Children, and How to Help.
By Hannah Maynor
After obesity and asthma, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness among adolescents. Given that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, the importance of recognizing it in growing children is unparalleled and early intervention is critical.
Stereotypes Are Deadly
- Regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sex, age, or otherwise, anyone can develop an eating disorder. Further, eating disorders don’t have a “look.”
- General stereotypes equating thinness with eating disorders are naive. While thinness is commonly associated with disordered eating, there is no weight qualification for diagnosis. Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, and like most illnesses, they affect everyone differently. While some eating disorders do result in weight loss, others do not – eating disorders are mental illnesses.
- It’s not simple – telling a child to “just eat” is not only discouraging, but counterintuitive. An illness rooted in anxiety cannot be cured by forced feeding. Put simply, food itself is not the problem and can be, consequently, an inadequate solution.
Seeing the Signs
- When children start displaying aversions to foods – especially foods they once loved – it’s time to pay attention. A child may have other reasons for not eating besides disliking the taste – restriction presents in many forms. Whether it is fear of a stomachache, issues with texture, or general tensions at mealtimes, ensuring adequate food intake is essential.
- Obsessive exercise and concerns about body image are often signs of disordered eating in children. While students involved in competitive sports may be more prone to these fixations, social peer pressures surrounding physical appearance are also impactful. Watch for over-analyzing, which can be pulling or stretching at skin, too much mirror time, and obsession over minor body changes.
- Eating disorders can manifest physically. Obvious, outward signs of eating disorders in children can include thinning hair, fragile nails, lanugo, stunted growth, and clothes that no longer fit.
How to Help
- Realize this is not really about food – eating disorders are rooted in anxiety. You may think your child is just making a choice to not eat, but statistical realities prove eating disorders are incredibly complex illnesses. They often require comprehensive treatment by professionals and unwavering familial support to overcome. Thankfully, when properly treated, there is a 60% recovery rate.
- Setting a positive example might sound cliche, but the reality is that children learn what they are taught. If parental figures are constantly monitoring their food intake by counting calories, carbs, or dieting, the message sent to children is that food is something to be controlled. Even simple language assigning “good” or “bad” qualifiers to certain foods is influential. Leading by an example of a healthy relationship with food is powerful; when food is just food and not a battle with your body, children notice.
- Ditch the scale – weight is literally the gravitational force upon a body, not a moral judgment. Children are taught numbers in school, and numbers have no intrinsic quality of being right or wrong – they just are. However, when a parent’s routine begets weekly weigh-ins followed by an emotional reaction, children learn to assign feelings of defeat or success to quantified amounts of gravity upon them. Avoid these practices around your children, and if they have already learned from you, take the opportunity to teach them that health is not determined by one number.
Understanding eating disorders is no small feat – the complexity of of this mental illness cannot be overstated. Unless you personally suffer from an eating disorder, it may feel impossible or even uncomfortable to learn about an illness that is so consuming for some. Supporting your children who may be struggling with an eating disorder by means of therapy, conscious household food practices, and a serious, positive attitude about health can make a critical difference. When food is treated as fuel, regardless of what it is, children learn about their needs in a healthy way.
Children learn from us. By allowing them a safe space to learn and giving them grace through a difficult process, the odds of beating an eating disorder rise. Forget the stereotypes and ditch the household scale.