It may surprise you to notice signs of disordered eating in your child or preteen, but it’s actually not unusual and should be treated as soon as possible. Studies have shown that the number of people suffering from eating disorders is increasing, while the minimum age at which professionals are seeing eating disorders is decreasing. Early detection and treatment can interrupt a lifetime of disordered eating.
This is why parents are at the frontline of eating disorder prevention and treatment. The sooner we can identify that our child is susceptible to and going down a path of disordered eating, which can often be first recognized by dieting or restricting food in some way, the better we are able to help them avoid seriously damaging their bodies with an eating disorder.
Here are some important notes for parents of children and tweens about eating disorders:
Genetics & Temperament
Perhaps the single largest contributor to the development of an eating disorder is foundational genetics and temperament. Many experts today state that these underlying predispositions are the foundation of eating disorders, and additional factors are “triggers” that may or may not influence eating disorder development. Many children who develop eating disorders exhibit signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, perfectionism and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Children between the ages of 5-12 don’t get as much attention in our society as babies, toddlers and teenager. For the most part, we focus our efforts on the first years and then get dragged back into active parenting when things go awry in adolescence. But the middle years are a crucial time for children to learn emotional management techniques, which can help them navigate the brain changes and emotional upheval that takes place during puberty. A major factor in eating disorder recovery is learning to identify, process and cope with emotions. During treatment, someone in recovery will learn to process, rather than numb, emotions like anger, sadness, shame, loneliness and envy. Parents can learn techniques to support this emotional development.
One thing that is unequivocal in the culture today is that being fat is considered bad, and being thin is considered good. These messages are accepted in our culture, and can be confusing and lead to disorders in young children who don’t understand the full range of health. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 41% of first through third graders state a desire to be thinner, and 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of becoming fat.
Most eating disorders begin with a diet. In our culture, it is accepted that dieting is the way to maintain low weight, which is synonymous with health and “goodness.” These messages are hard enough for adults to manage, but for young children who are susceptible, they can lead to disordered eating. Thirty five percent of “occasional dieters” progress into pathological dieting, (disordered eating) and as many as 25%, advance to full-blown eating disorders. Despite this, nearly half of 9 – 10 year old girls are dieting.
Children’s bodies change dramatically between the ages of 8 and 13. One of the most noted body changes is weight gain, which is biologically structured to provide the body with the energetic requirements to transition from child to adult. Just as babies gain weight right before they begin crawling and/or walking, prepubescent children will gain weight in their bellies, face, hips and thighs as they approach puberty. Many eating disorder experts have stated a fervent wish that parents stop “fiddling” with their kids during this time and, in fact, actively work against any shame or embarrassment during this weight period. Since the No. 1 side effect of dieting is weight gain (yes, you read that correctly), and the second is disordered eating, there is good evidence to say that helping a child get through puberty without dieting is a worthwhile goal.
Statistics about eating disorders and tweens
- 5 percent of adolescents are affected by an eating disorder (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)
- At least 10 percent of adults first showed clear symptoms prior to age 10 (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)
- The rate of development of new cases of eating disorders has been increasing since 1950 (Hudson et al., 2007; Streigel-Moore &Franko, 2003; Wade et al., 2011)
- There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930 (Hoek& van Hoeken, 2003).