Eating Disorders in Younger Children
Eating disorders cause life threatening health problems. The three most common children’s eating disorder types are:
- Anorexia – a condition in which a child refuses to eat a normal amount of calories out of an intense fear of becoming fat.
- Bulimia – a condition in which a child binges (overeats) and then purges the food by vomiting or using laxatives to prevent weight gain.
- Binge eating – a condition in which a child may rapidly overeat but does not purge.
Eating disorders can alternate or occur simultaneously. They typically develop during adolescence or early adulthood, but can start in childhood.
In young children, eating disorders are often associated with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or perfectionist tendencies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Mental Health, an estimated 33,000 children between the ages of 8 and 15 are diagnosed with eating disorders. Children have been diagnosed as young as age 5.
Tests & Diagnosis
Your child’s doctor will conduct a comprehensive physical exam to rule out underlying medical concerns. This exam will include vital signs, height, weight and questions regarding changes in eating habits.
Then, the doctor – or a therapist – will ask you and your child about changes in behaviors and eating habits, recent stressful events, body image, feelings of anxiety or depression and more.
Your child will be assessed to determine the level of treatment required. Levels of treatment can include outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, or inpatient hospitalization.
Treatment will focus on medical stabilization and resolving underlying psychological issues or beliefs. In addition to stabilizing the child’s nutritional status, medical stabilization will include lab work, an EKG, a physical exam and assessment by a dietician. Your child will be seen by a doctor daily, and nursing staff is available 24/7 for any medical or nursing needs.
Treatment modalities include family therapy, individual therapy, music therapy, art therapy and recreational therapy.
What are some symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder in young children?
If your child is suddenly eating much smaller or larger portions, cutting out foods he or she enjoyed in the past, losing weight or over-exercising, these could be signs that he or she is developing an eating disorder.
What are some of the potential negative health effects of these disorders?
Anorexia can cause damage to major organs like the brain, heart and kidneys; an irregular heartbeat; low blood pressure; sensitivity to cold; electrolyte imbalance and even cardiac arrest. Bulimia can cause damage to tooth enamel, inflammation of the esophagus, swelling of the salivary glands and low blood levels of potassium that can lead to dangerous abnormal heart rhythms. In children, these disorders can also affect normal growth and the onset of puberty.
How can I help my child recover?
You can help your child during treatment for an eating disorder by setting a good example with your own healthy eating habits and positive body image; avoiding threats and put-downs; finding ways to promote your child’s self-esteem and encouraging him or her to find healthy ways to manage negative feelings.
Where can I find a support group?
We will provide you with resources to help both you and your child. The Resources link on this webpage is also a good source for more information about eating disorders and support groups.