Eating disorders in children

Eating disorders in children and tweens

It surprises many parents to discover that children can develop eating disorders. Studies show that eating disorders are on the rise. Professionals report that the age of onset for eating disorders is younger than ever. Early detection and treatment are key.

Parents are at the frontline of eating disorder prevention and treatment. Parents should know the risk factors of eating disorders and take action as soon as possible.

Here are some important notes for parents of children and tweens about eating disorders:

Statistics about eating disorders and children

  • 5 percent of adolescents are affected by an eating disorder. (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)
  • 41% of first through third graders wish they were thinner, and 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of becoming fat. (National Eating Disorders Association)
  • At least 10 percent of adults first showed obvious 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 the incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930. (Hoek& van Hoeken, 2003).

Why do children develop eating disorders?

Eating disorders are complex and cannot be blamed on any single event or situation. Historically, parents were blamed for children’s eating disorders, but that’s unfair. No parent is responsible for their child’s eating disorder. But it’s also true that parents can support either eating disorder development or recovery from an eating disorder. The most likely reason for eating disorder development is a combination of:

  1. Genetics & temperament
  2. Emotional development
  3. Societal forces

Parents should remain vigilant and watch for the signs of eating disorder development. And if your child develops an eating disorder, it’s best to act quickly and pursue treatment.

Here’s a little more information about the reason children develop eating disorders:

1. Genetics & Temperament

Family history, genetics and temperament are all key factors that underlie eating disorders. While it’s unclear whether it’s nature or nurture, it’s clear that eating disorders tend to run in families. A family history of body image and food issues may make your child more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.

Children who develop eating disorders tend to be highly sensitive and intelligent. We often observe eating disorders alongside traits such as anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and conditions like ADD and OCD. In fact, many treatment professionals approach these underlying conditions before treating the eating disorder itself.

Parents should be familiar with the signs of mental health and conditions that can lead to problems. The following symptoms may indicate a mental health condition, including but not limited to an eating disorder:

  • Frequent and dramatic mood swings
  • Chronic fear and anxiety
  • Lack of interest in activities and people that were previously enjoyable
  • Repetitive and ritualistic behaviors such as grooming, cleaning, organizing, exercising, and fasting
  • Change of activity level (more or less than usual)
  • Sudden/drastic change of friend groups
  • Significant eating restrictions, including eliminating food groups, food aversion, eating in secret and binge eating

If you observe any symptoms of poor mental health, seek professional advice. It’s true that you may be overreacting or reading into things, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Don’t rely on your child to tell you whether they are OK – often they cannot identify a problem.

2. Emotional Development

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. They will also develop self-worth and self-esteem. Parents can learn techniques to support this emotional development.

In our society, we aim most articles and advice at parents of babies, toddlers, and adolescents. But the ages of 5-12 are critical in terms of emotional development. It’s common (and understandable) for parents to want a breather during this time period. But it’s important to attend to our children throughout their developmental years.

The years between kindergarten and high school are a critical time for children to learn emotional management techniques. This is when they develop core friendships and alliances that may determine their self-worth and self-esteem. Estrangement and emotional trauma during this key period of emotional development may make a child more susceptible to eating disorders.

Therefore, parental engagement in eating disorder treatment often makes an enormous impact. Parents are critical to driving and supporting eating disorder recovery. They can also learn new techniques to help their children feel secure. Parents’ actions can help children recover.

3. Societal Forces

One thing unequivocal in the culture today is that being fat is considered bad. Our very public fear of fat is most likely a significant contributor to the increasing rates of eating disorders.

Most eating disorders begin with a diet. Dieting (food restriction + exercise) is the accepted way to navigate our culture. Diets exist because being thin is synonymous with health and “goodness.”

The $70 billion diet industry drives diet culture. But most kids don’t have to invest in the industry. Tips and advice for weight loss are freely available and literally everywhere.

It’s no surprise that children tend to develop eating disorders during puberty, a time when weight gain is common. They naturally turn to dieting to control their bodies.

Most kids receive diet messages and advice at home, at school, on sports teams, and in the doctor’s office. Thirty-five percent of “occasional dieters” progress into pathological dieting, (disordered eating). As many as 25%, advance to full-blown eating disorders. Despite this, nearly half of 9 – 10-year-old girls are dieting.

Parents cannot completely overcome societal messages that glorify being thin and losing weight. But they can learn about Health at Every SizeⓇ and practice a body-positive, anti-diet lifestyle.

Parents should know that the No. 1 side effect of dieting is weight gain (yes, you read that correctly). All diets are technically disordered eating.

Parents who want their children to recover from an eating disorder should ban dieting and weight restriction of any type. For more support on this topic, please read Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison or The F*ck It Diet by Carolyn Dooner.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.

She’s the editor of and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.

Comments 2

  1. Ginny – I saw a post that said 50% of preschool girls were afraid of being fat. Do you have the documentation for that. (I believe it just want to have the data behind it). Thank you.

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